Prospects for budget legislation solid in Senate
WASHINGTON — One day after winning lopsided House approval, bipartisan legislation to ease across-the-board spending cuts and reduce economy-rattling budget brinkmanship appears likely to command the 60 votes necessary to clear the Senate, officials in both parties said Friday.
Yet unlike in the House, significantly more Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the legislation than vote for it, highlighting the different political forces at work at opposite ends of the Capitol.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced a test vote for Tuesday on the measure, which cleared the House on an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 332-94.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars joined the ranks of the bill's opponents during the day, citing a provision to reduce cost of living increases for military retirees until they reach age 62. The result could mean "a cumulative loss in retirement income of $80,000" for a sergeant first class who retires at age 40, the group said.
"Although Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, we can't allow Congress to dismantle the programs they created over the past 12 years," said William A. Thien, the VFW's national commander.
A short while later, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said they would oppose the measure unless the provision were changed. They said a 42-year-old sergeant first class retiring after 20 years would lose about $72,000 in income.
Overall, the legislation erases a total of $63 billion in across-the-board cuts in the next two budget years, and specifies $85 billion in savings over a decade, including the one relating to military retirement. The result is a net $23 billion cut in deficits through 2023, although critics argue the spending increases will happen first, and many of the savings years later, if at all.
By raising spending levels, the bill is also designed to eliminate the threat of another budget shutdown like the one this fall.
Senate supporters will need 60 votes to advance the bill, and even some opponents predicted that was likely to happen.
"My sense is that the procedural issues could be overcome and there could be just" a yes or no vote, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who added he intends to oppose the measure because it increases spending.
He said unnamed Republicans have held private discussions on handling the legislation, but did not say if the leadership was involved.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also told reporters he will join in making sure the measure gets 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote, even though he is inclined to oppose the bill on final passage.
Speaking privately, several GOP congressional aides said most if not all rank-and-file Republicans were strongly inclined to oppose the legislation, in part because it would raise spending in the short-term in exchange for longer-range savings they say may not materialize.
Tea party-aligned groups and challengers they are supporting in primaries against incumbent Republicans appear poised to turn lawmakers' support for the agreement into a campaign issue.
Many Republican senators face primary challengers, and none of those senators has announced an intention to vote for the legislation.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second ranking GOP leader, who drew a primary opponent earlier in the week, is "concerned about reversing spending cuts," said a spokeswoman, Megan Mitchell.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is widely expected to oppose the bill, but has not yet announced a public position.
His primary opponent, Matt Bevin, hasn't been as reticent. He opposes the legislation, and said of the incumbent: "Instead of leading, he is dodging a major issue while waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing."
All three Senate Republicans mentioned as potential presidential contenders in 2016, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, are opposed to the bill.
Despite the opposition from tea party groups and others on the right, Senate Republicans say they fear a public backlash if the bill fails and the public decides they are responsible, particularly after the drubbing the GOP took in the polls after this fall's partial government shutdown. The officials who described developments concerning the measure did so based on a condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to speak on the record about strategic deliberations.
Similar concerns converged in the House.
Yet all three top Republican leaders were among 169 members of the rank and file in voting for the measure, and some lawmakers worried aloud that the bill's demise could inflict further political damage on the party.
On Thursday, in advance of the vote, Speaker John Boehner unleashed a stinging attack on the groups campaigning for the bill's demise, saying they lacked credibility. He also blamed them for leading the party into the shutdown this fall.
The bill's principal Republican negotiator, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is also considered a potential presidential contender. An aide said he has been making phone calls to senators seeking their support.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.