December 19, 2013

Budget compromise averts crisis

Maine’s senators say they hope the compromise will bring an end to crippling partisan stalemates.


By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed the first federal budget bill in more than four years on Wednesday, easing automatic spending cuts and likely averting another potential government shutdown in January.

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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walk to a closed-door Republican meeting before the Senate moves to pass a modest, bipartisan budget bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday.

The Associated Press

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The chamber passed the two-year budget bill on a 64-36 vote late Wednesday afternoon, nearly one week after the House of Representatives endorsed the measure by a more lopsided 332-94 vote. President Obama is expected to quickly sign the spending blueprint into law, ending a politically raucus year on a more bipartisan note.

The bill sets annual spending at roughly $1 trillion in the current fiscal year and in 2015, up from the $967 billion previously authorized under strict budget caps aimed at reducing the federal deficit.

The compromise also reduces the “sequestration” budget cuts by $63 billion, or roughly one-third of the cuts slated for the next two years. But the bill avoids adding to the deficit by increasing fees on airline passengers and corporate pension programs.

A CONTROVERSIAL PROVISION

The bill also reduces inflation adjustments for younger military retirees, a controversial provision senators have promised to correct next year.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King voted for the bill, which should allow the government to avoid a mid-January government shutdown. The bill, however, fails to deal with major tax, spending and entitlement challenges facing Congress.

The Maine senators said they hope the vote – coming roughly two months after a politically embarrassing and economically painful government shutdown – signals a thaw in the partisan freeze gripping Washington. King and Collins both said they believe easing the across-the-board sequestration cuts will provide more certainty to Maine defense contractors and to other programs reliant on federal funding.

“At least it’s progress,” said King, an independent who serves on the Senate Budget Committee, in a floor speech prior to the vote. “I think that is one of the most important parts of this bill. And I think that’s the signal that it sends to the country: that we can, in fact, talk to each other. We can, in fact, compromise.”

Collins said that the compromise, while imperfect, would “create certainty that has been sorely lacking for far too long,” while reducing Pentagon cuts affecting military readiness and thousands of jobs in Maine. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Collins will be involved in planning how to spend the money within the $1 trillion budget cap.

“We simply must avoid another shutdown and put our nation back on a sound financial footing,” Collins, one of nine Republicans to support the bill, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this agreement will be the first steps on a responsible path forward.”

It is too early to say exactly how the budget will impact federal programs in Maine because the bill is essentially a budget blueprint that establishes spending levels for the next two years. House and Senate appropriators are expected to begin meeting soon to make specific spending decisions.

Maine’s defense industry and social service programs could benefit from the easing of the sequestration cuts – inflexible annual spending reductions triggered by Congress’ failure to agree on its own deficit reduction plan.

The bill could relieve some financial pressure on social programs in Maine such as Meals on Wheels and Head Start that struggled to absorb sizable budget cuts this year.

Some employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were furloughed earlier this year as a result of the budget cuts and then again during the 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government in October.

The Navy cited the budget cuts and cost overruns when it decided to scrap rather than repair the fire-damaged USS Miami submarine.

(Continued on page 2)

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