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President gets budget win — but only by staying out of negotiations

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President Obama wasn't in the room when negotiators hammered out the details of the landmark budget agreement that cleared Congress on Wednesday, but his fingerprints are all over the deal.

From Transportation Security Administration fee increases to cuts to federal retirement benefits, members of Congress borrowed heavily from Mr. Obama's budget, submitted early this year, when they went looking for future tax increases and spending cuts they could use to offset higher spending now.

Analysts said the chief executive even may have discovered a truth about legislating: Keeping his distance may be the most effective way to get things done in Washington and to achieve his own aims.

"It may have been the advice he got: 'Mr. President, stay clear of this and we'll work something out.' Under the circumstances, staying out of it and resolving it for the short run was the best he could hope for," said Stephen J. Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University's department of government and a researcher on the American presidency.

The two-year budget agreement passed the Senate on a 64-36 vote late Wednesday afternoon, with nine of the chamber's 45 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting it. The deal cleared the House last week on a more bipartisan vote, 350-69.

After the measure cleared the Senate, Mr. Obama said he was pleased with many of the provisions, including spending increases.

"All told, it's a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy," the president said in a statement. "It helps chart our economic course for the next two years, which means that the American people won't be exposed to another painful and unwise government shutdown."

It sets top spending levels for 2014 and 2015, boosting discretionary spending by tens of billions of dollars in exchange for future fee increases and other spending cuts.

Mr. Obama's hands-off approach contrasts with his moves during the government shutdown earlier this year, when he frequently spoke out and summoned leaders to the White House to try to broker a deal. That strategy resulted in little success.

This time, the White House stayed at arm's length from negotiations on Capitol Hill. As a result, the president got plenty of concessions in the forms of tax and fee increases and higher spending in the plan, written by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

For starters, the budget cuts known as sequestration have been partially erased — something Mr. Obama has been pushing. Basic domestic spending will rise by $22 billion in 2014 and $9 billion in 2015. Defense discretionary spending also will increase.

But more specific provisions in the agreement closely mirror proposals laid out by the president.

Mr. Obama's most recent budget blueprint, for example, called for increases on airline ticket security fees. The Ryan-Murray budget agreement boosts those fees, which now range from $2.50 to $5, to a flat $5.60 per one-way trip. That is expected to produce an additional $12.6 billion over the next decade.

The bill also restricts access to the Death Master File kept by the government to figure out when it should stop paying benefits to the deceased. Tightening access — which Mr. Obama proposed in his 2014 budget — is expected to save tens of millions of dollars by cutting fraud.

Another section adopts Mr. Obama's proposal to continue charging states a percentage of their royalties from mineral leases, which is expected to produce nearly a half-billion dollars. Mr. Ryan and Mrs. Murray also adopted Mr. Obama's plan to collect a conservation planning fee to produce $39 million over 10 years.

In his 2014 budget, the president also put forth reforms to federal employee pension systems and called for cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees.

The Ryan-Murray budget tackles both. It increases federal employee pension contributions by 1.3 percentage points, estimated to generate nearly $6 billion over 10 years.

It also cuts benefits to working-age military retirees by reforming annual cost-of-living increases, claiming such a move will save about $6 billion over 10 years.

With the deal so heavy on new fees and lacking changes to the big entitlement programs that are driving long-term deficits, conservatives have questioned why Republican leaders such as Mr. Ryan and House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio agreed to it.

"There are a lot of weird things about this deal," said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of DownsizingGovernment.org. "One is that Republicans went into this negotiation in a much stronger position than they did going into the shutdown earlier this year. Back then, Obama's poll ratings were higher. The Obamacare disaster hadn't hit the headlines in the newspapers yet. And yet, there is really nothing Republican about this deal."

Mr. Ryan, Mr. Boehner and other Republicans, however, see the agreement as a key step forward. It may have been just a cease-fire as Republicans gear up for an intense fight over the nation's debt ceiling early next year.

The White House has said repeatedly that it won't negotiate over the debt ceiling. If Republicans and Democrats in Congress sit down to hammer out a deal, analysts say, it's a safe bet the president will remain far away from the negotiating table once again.

"This president does not like to get into the trenches and fight over nitty-gritty stuff," Mr. Wayne said. "This is a very risk-averse president. I think this guy would rather play it safe, as long as he's not being criticized for not getting involved."

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