WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan agreement to ease sharp spending cuts known as the sequester easily cleared its last major hurdle Tuesday, as 67 senators voted to advance the measure in hopes of ending nearly three years of political gridlock over the federal budget.
Despite the opposition of conservative advocacy groups and late-breaking concerns about proposed reductions to military pensions, 12 Republicans joined all 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus in voting to proceed to a final vote, expected to occur this evening.
Thirty-three Republicans voted to block the deal, a package of fees and spending cuts intended to replace about half the sequester cuts in the current fiscal year and avert another government shutdown. But it would have little impact on the larger problems at the heart of Washington's budget battles, and even those who voted to support it were hardly enthusiastic.
Pennsylvania's two senators split on the cloture vote, with Democrat Bob Casey in favor of moving forward on the deal, and Republican Pat Toomey opposed.
"For the first time in four years, we are in a position to pass a budget agreement with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate," Mr. Casey said in a statement. "This bill is not perfect [but] ... in a year filled with far too much partisan fighting, this compromise is an important step forward."
"There's a heavy sigh going on in our caucus right now, because people like me are looking at this and saying, 'Is it a good deal? No. But is it a deal? Yeah,' " said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the Republicans who voted to advance the legislation. "I have tried to look at this on balance. And on balance, the benefit of having a deal is better than no deal."
The agreement was brokered on the heels of a 16-day government shutdown in October that riled taxpayers and sent approval ratings for congressional Republicans plummeting in public opinion polls. After nearly two months of talks, Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last week announced the deal, which would ease the impact of the sequester without raising taxes or cutting popular retirement programs.
"We have lurched from one crisis to another, from one fiscal cliff to the next," Ms. Murray said before the vote. "I am hopeful this deal can be the first of many bipartisan deals that can rebuild some of the trust."
Although the accord sailed through the House on a landslide 332-94 vote, problems quickly cropped up in the Senate. Potential GOP presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, opposed it because it would increase spending now in exchange for the promise of budget cuts later. A number of Republican incumbents facing primary challenges from the right also chimed in, including Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, whose GOP opponent, Chris McDaniel, on Monday urged Mr. Cochran to oppose the "disastrous. . . deficit-increasing legislation."
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted no, citing his long-standing opposition to any agreement that would weaken the sequester, which was part of a historic $2.1 trillion deficit-reduction deal Mr. McConnell negotiated in the summer of 2011 with Vice President Joe Biden. Mr. McConnell faces serious challenges from both the right and left in his 2014 re-election campaign, and he has touted the sequester pact as reducing the size of government and ending an economy-shaking fight over the debt limit.
On Tuesday, however, concerns about cuts to military pensions took center stage. The deal calls for $85 billion in total savings over the next decade, including $6 billion from reducing cost-of-living adjustments by 1 percent for military retirees younger than 62.
According to House budget aides, the proposal would reduce lifetime retirement pay by about 6 percent for a man who enlisted at age 18 and retired at age 38 as a Army sergeant first class -- leaving him with about $1.626 million in lifetime retirement pay instead of $1.734 million.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., called the provision "a dealbreaker" and urged her colleagues to find an alternative. "We could quickly find $6 billion that would not be taken from the backs of our men and women in uniform," she said.
That prompted her home-state colleague, Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, to propose replacing the pension cuts by closing a variety of corporate tax loopholes -- an idea Republicans roundly ignored.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the few senators who served in the military, dismissed the outcry, noting that even high-ranking Pentagon officials have acknowledged the need to rein in the runaway cost of military benefits, from pensions after 20 years of service to the military health program TriCare.