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All-out war breaks out in GOP over budget

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tea party groups and fiscal conservatives wasted no time Wednesday in savaging a bipartisan budget agreement negotiated between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, drawing an unusually angry response from House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.

All sides were rating the winners and losers in the deal struck a day earlier between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. The modest deficit-cutting deal had some sweeteners for defense contractors and oil drillers, while air travelers, federal workers and some corporate executives would take a hit.

But most of the passion focused on the politics of the deal, with Mr. Ryan, Mr. Boehner and the House GOP leadership defending their handiwork from attacks from conservative colleagues on Capitol Hill and from outside groups such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity. Critics said the agreement effectively raised taxes in the form of higher fees, failed to restrain entitlement programs and permitted new spending in the short term in exchange for vague promises of long-term cuts.

Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said in an interview that Republicans sacrificed their biggest point of leverage — the tough "sequester" spending cuts that were already in force — in the rush to get a short-term deal that did not address the long-term costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

"I am against [the deal] from just a basic point that we embarked on a position at the beginning of the year that said, 'We will keep the sequester in place unless we get to make changes on mandatory spending that will save those program and put the budget on path to balance within the next 10 years,'" Mr. Jordan said.

Added Chris Chocola, president of the fiscally hawkish Club for Growth, "Apparently, there are some Republicans who don't have the stomach for even relatively small spending reductions that are devoid of budgetary smoke and mirrors. If Republicans work with Democrats to pass this deal, it should surprise no one when Republican voters seek alternatives who actually believe in less spending when they go to the ballot box."

Despite conservative unhappiness and tepid reviews from many House Democrats, the proposal could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday and Mr. Ryan said Wednesday on CNN that he is confident he has the votes to pass the bill.

Mr. Boehner used unusually pointed language in hitting back at conservative opponents of the deal, charging that critics opposed the agreement even before knowing what was in it.

"They're using our members and the American people to their own purposes," an angry Mr. Boehner said. "This is ridiculous."

But several Republican senators, including Kentucky's Rand Paul and Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, immediately came out against the deal and many other Republican senators are expected to oppose the accord.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated Wednesday that the bulk of the plan's deficit reduction would come in the final three years of the deal, while the new spending would happen over the next two years.

The estimate followed news that the U.S. government ran a $135.2 billion budget deficit through the first two months of the year — well short of the $226.8 billion deficit the nation had built up by this time a year ago. The Treasury Department said that more revenue was coming into the federal government thanks to higher tax rates and an improving economy.

The Ryan-Murray agreement increases spending in 2014 to $1.012 trillion and in 2015 to $1.014 trillion and restores more than $60 billion in sequester spending cuts.

The new spending is offset in part by lowering the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees, requiring higher pension contributions from recently hired federal employees and raising fees on travelers collected by the Transportation Security Administration.

Some winners in the deal included the Pentagon and the defense industry, where much of the defense-related sequester cuts were restored, and the energy industry, which won expanded rights for joint drilling along the U.S.-Mexico border and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Industries and interests that emerged as losers in the final deal were quick to make their unhappiness known.

"As we have said consistently, airlines and our customers are already overtaxed, and we are disappointed that fees on air travel were increased, and believe those higher taxes will impact demand, jobs and our economy," said Katie Connell, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group representing U.S. airlines.

The National Treasury Employees Union launched a pre-emptive strike against the proposal, saying last week that federal employees had suffered enough under pay freezes and furloughs.

"We continue to believe that there should be zero cuts to federal pay and benefits in this deal and that federal employees are being asked to contribute a disproportionate share toward deficit reduction," the group said Wednesday.

National Nurses United took issues with the cuts aimed at federal workers, especially nurses working in Veterans Affairs hospitals.

"There is no reason to cheer an agreement that requires unwarranted pension cuts for federal workers, including VA nurses who earned that pension, underfunds nutrition programs and fails to extend assistance for the long-term unemployed," said Jean Ross, co-president of the nurses group.

Military members said they are also bearing more than their fair share of the government's financial problems. Military retirees' cost-of-living allowance will be decreased to 1 percent below the inflation rate, leading to a 20 percent cut to retirement benefits over their lives, according to a statement from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"The budget agreement balances the budget on the backs of military retirees. It's the latest example of how Washington is broken, forcing those who have sacrificed the most over the last 10 years to choose between this deal, sequestration or government shutdown," said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer of IAVA.

Many liberal lawmakers said the federal budget should not be balanced on the backs of federal workers and that the bill could have trouble passing if it does not extend unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who are set to get kicked off the rolls before the end of the year.

"That does put the overall effort at risk," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and supporter of the plan, tried to ease some of the concerns coming from his side of the aisle by vowing to push for an extension of unemployment insurance and for an increase in the minimum wage when the Senate returns to Washington after the new year.

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