The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a two-year, bipartisan budget plan that authorizes $633 billion in defense spending for the next year – and aims to end the partisan fighting over fiscal affairs that led to last October's 16-day partial government shutdown.
The vote Thursday was 350-69, an overwhelming bipartisan total that puts pressure on the Senate to act before it adjourns next week. The budget deal must next pass the Democratic-controlled Senate before being sent to President Barack Obama for signing into law.
The bill would also strip military commanders of the ability to overturn jury convictions in sexual assault cases, and would criminalize retaliation against a victim of sexual assault in the armed forces. In 2011, a Pentagon report found that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted – a 37 percent increase in cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military.
In addition, the bill would end some automatic spending cuts on federal agencies, and replace them with more targeted government savings.
The events in the House put a light coating of bipartisan cooperation on a bruising year of divided government – memorable for a partial government shutdown, flirtation with an unprecedented Treasury default, and gridlock on immigration, gun control and other items on Obama's second-term agenda.
Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, hailed the vote, saying it "shows Washington can and should stop governing by crisis and both sides can work together to get things done."
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, seemed to agree. He criticized hardline conservative factions within his own party, and blamed them for the government's inertia.
"I think they're misleading their followers," Boehner said, referring to hardline interests whom he pointedly blamed for the politically damaging partial government shutdown earlier this year. "I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility" by opposing legislation before the details are known.
He mentioned no organizations by name, but it appeared he was referring to Heritage Action and Club for Growth, both of which have sought to push the House further to the right than most of the Republican leadership has been willing to go.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a chief Republican architect of the deal, made a case for conservative support. The measure "reduces the deficit by $23 billion. It does not raise taxes and it cuts spending in a smarter way," said Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee and whose handiwork could well be challenged in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
The second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, joined other party leaders in swinging behind the measure – even though he noted that he represents 62,000 federal workers, and said future government employees will pay higher pension costs because of the bill. "This agreement is better than the alternative" of ever-deeper across-the-board cuts, he said.
The measure would erase $63 billion in across-the-board cuts set for January and early 2015 on domestic and defense programs, leaving about $140 billion in reductions in place. On the other side of the budget ledger, it projects savings totaling $85 billion over the coming decade, enough to show a deficit reduction of about $23 billion over the 10-year period.
The cuts would be replaced with savings generated from dozens of sources. Among them are higher airline security fees, curbs on the pension benefits of new federal workers and additional costs for corporations whose pensions are guaranteed by the federal government. The measure also would slow the annual cost-of-living increase in benefits for military retirees under the age of 62.
The combination of short-term spending increases and long-term savings would send deficits higher for the current budget year and each of the next two, a dramatic departure from the conservative orthodoxy that Republicans have enforced since taking control of the House three years ago.
Although the bill has strong support, some Senate Republicans may try to block it, angered by Democratic leader Harry Reid for changing the rules last month to reduce their power over nominations. Reid also denied them a chance to offer amendments to the defense bill.
Al Jazeera and wire services