On Both Sides Of The Aisle, Little To Like In Budget Deal

Dec 11, 2013
Originally published on December 11, 2013 6:26 pm
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After weeks of negotiations, there is a bipartisan plan to finance the government. The House is expected to vote on it tomorrow. The bill sets budget levels for two years. It also rolls back some of the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester, and it would reduce the deficit by $23 billion over a decade. NPR's Tamara Keith is gauging enthusiasm for the deal.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The thing to know about this deal is that it's a compromise. No one seems to be getting everything they wanted or, it seems, even all that much of what they wanted. And that's because the only way negotiators could get a deal was to focus on the things they agreed on. And there aren't that many of them.

STAN COLLENDER: It's barely better than nothing.

KEITH: Stan Collender is a senior partner at Qorvis Communications and tweets as The Budget Guy.

COLLENDER: Well, let's call this for what it is. I mean, this is a CYA kind of move for Congress. They didn't want to talk about government shutdowns anymore. They had constituents and companies back home that didn't like the automatic spending cuts, so they came up with a package of what some people would call gimmicks, what other people would call insignificant changes that, on a whole, over a 10-year basis looks like it saves some money.

KEITH: The budget bill is made up of a bunch of relatively small spending cuts and fee increases. It replaces many of the sequester cuts over the next two years with savings and revenue spread out over a decade. This covers everything from preventing prisoners from getting improper tax refunds to adding an extra 60 cents to a one-way airline ticket. That one is generating some heat from conservative Republicans like Tim Huelskamp from Kansas.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM HUELSKAMP: I'm sorry, raising fees is raising taxes. And raising spending is raising spending.

KEITH: Another significant source of savings in the bill comes from retirement benefits for federal workers and career military. New federal employees will have to make larger retirement contributions, and working-age military retirees will see their cost of living adjustments shrink. This will raise about $12 billion over a decade but it is a smaller hit than had been contemplated earlier in negotiations.

BRUCE MOYER: The immediate reaction was, whew, this could have been worse.

KEITH: Bruce Moyer is chair of the Federal-Postal Coalition, which represents five million employees and retirees.

MOYER: But the second reflection is federal employees are still getting hit once again.

KEITH: This is a small deal. It doesn't eliminate tax loopholes, as Democrats would have liked. And it doesn't address entitlement programs, as Republicans would have liked. The negotiators say it is a start, a first step to possible bipartisan cooperation to come. Matt Salmon is a Tea Party Republican from Arizona, and he isn't sold on that argument.

REPRESENTATIVE MATT SALMON: It's a baby step and it's a little tiny baby step. I think that we could have made maybe a toddler step.

KEITH: Salmon plans to vote against the deal, but figures a mix of Democrats and Republicans will support it.

SALMON: My prediction is it will probably end up passing, which to me - the saddest thing of all, really, is not that the cuts aren't significant enough, it's that we did virtually nothing on Social Security and Medicare.

KEITH: For Democrats, the lack of tax changes is a concern. And the bill also doesn't address unemployment insurance. Without congressional action, more than a million people will lose benefits at the end of this month. Many, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, had hoped an extension would be added to the deal.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: It's absolutely unconscionable that we are - could possibly even consider leaving Washington, D.C. without extending those benefits.

KEITH: But, at the moment, with the clock ticking to Friday when the House intends to leave for the holidays, an extension appears unlikely. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.