WASHINGTON — Year-end legislation to ease Congress’ chronic budget brinkmanship and soften across-the-board spending cuts moved to the cusp of final passage Tuesday, a rare display of Senate bipartisanship that masked strong complaints about slicing into military retirement benefits.
The measure is expected to clear the Senate and go to President Barack Obama for his signature today, marking a modest accomplishment at the end of a year punctuated by a partial government shutdown, a near-default by the U.S. Treasury and congressional gridlock on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.
“This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process. And, hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the compromise with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The first major test of that is likely to come in February, when Congress faces a vote to raise the government’s debt limit.
Tuesday’s vote to send the measure toward final approval was 67-33. But even as it was advancing, Republicans vowed that the requirement for curtailing the growth in cost-of-living benefits for military retirees under age 62 wouldn’t long survive. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, has said the panel will review the change, estimated to trim some $6.3 billion in benefits, early next year.
“This provision is absolutely wrong; it singles out our military retirees,” protested Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., at a news conference shortly before the vote.
By late afternoon, the bipartisanship had faded as Republicans ratcheted up their criticism and maneuvered for political gain. A proposal aimed at removing the retirement provision failed on a near party-line vote of 46-54. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who faces a difficult challenge for re-election, was the only senator to switch sides.