Lawmakers Reach Agreement on Budget, Breaking Gridlock

Modest deal would reverse some automatic spending cuts and could end cycle of brinkmanship

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Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray eye the ceremonial gavel before the start of the House-Senate conference committee on the congressional budget on Oct. 30, 2013.

Correction appended: Dec. 10, 2013, 11:40 p.m. E.T.

Congressional leaders struck a deal on Tuesday to undo billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts that have frustrated both parties, a modest agreement that nevertheless raised hopes of an end to the nonstop budget battles and brinkmanship that have consumed Washington in recent years.

The deal, which would set spending levels for the next two years and replace the automatic cuts mandated by “sequestration” with more targeted cuts and some revenue increases, is expected to go before the House later this week, and the Senate shortly after. It follows intense negotiations between Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray, the respective House and Senate Budget Committee chairs, who have been working to avert another government shutdown early next year. The deal does little to resolve the much larger partisan divides on government spending, but if enacted, it would still be the most significant budget agreement since Republicans seized control of the House in 2010.

“From the outset, we realized if we forced each other to compromise on a core principle, we would not get anywhere,” Ryan said during a joint news conference with Murray at the Capitol. “That’s why we decided to focus on where there is common ground.”

“In divided government, you don’t always get what you want,” added Ryan, who was the Republican Party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee. “That said, we can still make progress toward our goals.

“The debt would go down more with this than if we did nothing,” Ryan said, taking pains to note that the revenues in the deal come from fees and other sources, not raising taxes. “I think conservatives should vote for this … I have every reason to express great support from our caucus.”

Murray hailed the agreement as one that would stop Congress from “lurching from crisis to crisis.”

This deal doesn’t solve all of our problems,” she said. “But I think it’s an important step to heal some of the wounds here in Congress, and show we can do something without a crisis right around the corner.”

House Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor quickly voiced support for the deal. Republicans have been more eager to cut a deal since the government shutdown in October sent their poll numbers into a nosedive and distracted from the botched rollout of President Barack Obama’s health-care-reform law. Obama also embraced the deal.

“This agreement doesn’t include everything I’d like — and I know many Republicans feel the same way,” he said in a statement. “That’s the nature of compromise. But it’s a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decisionmaking to get this done. That’s the way the American people expect Washington to work.”

The so-called sequestration cuts, which were enacted after Congress failed to reach a larger budget agreement in 2011 under the threat of across-the-board cuts, had frustrated lawmakers in both parties because of their indiscriminate nature. Ryan said the cuts in the new deal are “smart, targeted reforms.”

“This agreement makes sure that we don’t have a government-shutdown scenario in January,” Ryan said. “This deal makes sure we don’t jump from crisis to crisis.”

But the deal is sure to face some resistance from conservative lawmakers and outside groups that want deeper spending cuts — the baseline spending levels allowed fall midway between what Republicans and Democrats had sought. But Ryan holds significant sway with conservatives, and he said the negotiations were done in close consultation with GOP leadership and with committee chairs who will have jurisdiction over the bill, officially called the Bipartisan Budget Act.

Some prominent players quickly voiced their opposition.

“We need a government with less debt and an economy with more good-paying jobs, and this budget fails to accomplish both goals, making it harder for more Americans to achieve the American Dream,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement. “Instead, this budget continues Washington’s irresponsible budgeting decisions by spending more money than the government takes in and placing additional financial burdens on everyday Americans.”

The conservative group Americans for Prosperity said the deal is “not just bad policy, it is bad politics.”

And Republican Senate minority whip John Cornyn, who just drew a primary challenger to his re-election hopes this week, reacted skeptically.

“The outlines of it are concerning,” he said. “It’s just more spending. I think it’s headed in the wrong direction.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers

An earlier version of this article misidentified Patty Murray’s congressional title. She is a Senator, not a Representative.