Congress on Wednesday moved a step closer to clearing a bipartisan budget deal that would boost spending for domestic and defense programs over two years while suspending the debt limit into 2017.
The House passed the bill on a 266 to 167 vote late Wednesday and Senate leaders have promised to quickly move it through the upper chamber.
The agreement would essentially end the often contentious budget battles between congressional Republicans and President Obama by pushing the next round of fiscal decision making past the 2016 election when there will be a new Congress and White House occupant.
House Republican leaders unveiled the proposal earlier this week and immediately faced challenges from conservatives upset over both the secretive negotiations that led to the agreement as well as the policies contained in the bill.
Some of this discontent was dealt with after a change was made to the bill late Tuesday night to ensure that the full cost of the $80 billion in new discretionary spending was offset by an equal amount of mandatory spending cuts and increased revenue.
Some Republicans raised concerns earlier Tuesday that the bill fell about $4 billion short of this goal, but the Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday reported that the changes to the legislation had closed this gap.
Senior Republicans came forward ahead of the vote to support the legislation and encourage others to join them. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the bill would benefit the military and prevent the threat of another shutdown.
“It stops the cuts in defense, it increases the money going to our troops and it prevents them from being used as a bargaining chip in the future,” Thornberry said. “I think that is the sort of stability and predictability they need and that they deserve.”
Still, many House Republicans remained opposed to the deal and only 79 voted in favor of the deal while 187 Democrats supported the bill on the floor.
The agreement would lift the so-called sequester spending caps to increase discretionary spending by about $80 billion over two years, an amount that would be split equally among defense and domestic programs. To offset this cost, negotiators tapped a number of sources, including by making changes to Medicare and Social Security, auctioning off spectrum controlled by the government, selling crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and tightening tax rules for business partnerships.
In addition, the legislation would limit a historic premium increase for Medicare Part B beneficiaries set to go into effect next year for services like hospital care and doctor visits. The agreement also would prevent a potential 20 percent across-the-board cut to Social Security Disability Insurance benefits that is also set to take place next year, by transferring some funding from the main Social Security fund and making changes to the program. These cost-saving changes include allowing some recipients who can still work to receive partial payments while earning outside income and expanding a program requiring a second medical expert to weigh in on whether an applicant is truly disabled.
Senate leaders want to move the bill quickly — the Treasury Department estimates the deadline for raising the debt ceiling is Nov. 3 — and a tax bill that already passed the House is being used as the vehicle for the agreement in order to speed up the procedural process in the upper chamber.
Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he plans to filibuster the bill, but his chances of slowing down passage are limited.
The agreement will have to clear one procedural hurdle with at least 60 votes before it can be approved by a simple majority. At most Paul could briefly delay the final vote by refusing to allow leaders to cut off debate before the maximum 30 hours allowed under Senate rules have expired.
The final Senate vote could come as early as this week.
Attempts to do away with two of the thorniest problems facing the House GOP — setting spending levels and raising the debt ceiling — come as Republicans on Wednesday nominated Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to replace John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is resigning from Congress this week, as speaker of the House.