Budget Deal Faces Key Vote In Senate

A modest but potentially tone-changing budget deal now faces a key test in the Senate. It was approved by the House last week, with the support of a majority of House Republicans. Now at least five Senate Republicans will have to support the plan for it to reach the critical, 60-vote threshold needed for passage.

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Before leaving Washington last week for the holidays, the House overwhelmingly passed a compromise budget deal. It's meant to stave off a government shutdown for two years. But there's a catch. The Senate has to approve it, and passage there is still uncertain. Unlike House Republicans, the Senate's GOP minority has shown little enthusiasm for the deal and may try to block it with a filibuster.

Joining me from the Capitol to discuss the agreement's prospects is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And, David, first of all, why is it that the House and Senate Republicans are seeing this deal so differently?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, for one thing, Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, who is one of the most respected GOP conservatives in the House, cut this deal, which is why it won a lot of support there from Republicans. But Senate Republicans had nothing to do with it, so no pride of ownership there. Also, House Republicans took most of the blame for the October government shutdown. And with mid-term elections looming next year, they had no interest in forcing another politically costly shutdown by not passing a budget. And finally, House Republicans realized that if they did not back the budget, it likely would not pass. But in the Senate, where Republicans are in the minority, their votes are not needed for final passage, but they could still try to filibuster this deal.

BLOCK: Yeah. And Senate Democrats have 55 members in their caucus. They need a supermajority. They need 60 votes if they're going to block a filibuster. Do they have those votes?

WELNA: Well, it's not absolutely certain, though there are reports that there are now the five Republicans who would be needed to get to 60. This afternoon on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to rally support for the budget deal, which the Senate takes up tomorrow.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Although neither side got everything it wanted from this agreement, the legislation should help break a terrible cycle of governing by crisis. And it rolls back the painful and arbitrary cuts of the sequester, protects Social Security and Medicare benefits, and will help prevent another dangerous government shutdown in the new year.

WELNA: And one of the key players in ending the last shutdown was Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. But this time, McConnell looks like he'll part ways with House Speaker John Boehner, who strongly backed the budget deal. McConnell is one of seven Republicans seeking re-election next year who face Tea Party-backed primary challengers and not one of them has come out in favor of this budget compromise.

BLOCK: Yeah. And what's the main complaint, David, that you're hearing from Senate Republicans about this budget?

WELNA: Well, most of those who oppose it - and most do - say it does very little to rein in spending, especially when it comes to entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, which drive a lot of the spending. But while the budget does eliminate a lot of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that have otherwise - that would hit the Pentagon in January especially hard, some Republicans are angry that it's being paid for in part by paring $6 billion from military retirement benefits starting a year from now through smaller cost-of-living adjustments.

BLOCK: David, on the House side, the Democrats' leader, Nancy Pelosi, told her troops they should embrace this budget deal even if they don't much like it. She used more colorful language than that. But on the Senate side, what about the Democrats there? Are they also complaining about this budget, and if they're going to vote for it, vote for it but with held nose, basically.

WELNA: Yes. There are complaints. Some are upset about the budget demanding larger pension contributions from federal employees. And I would say, Melissa, that just about every Democrat in the Senate is upset about this budget lacking any provision extending emergency jobless benefits, which will expire for 1.3 million unemployed people three days after Christmas without congressional action. Senate Democrats say the first thing they'll do when they're back in January will be to try to extend those benefits. But House Republicans have made no such commitment.

BLOCK: And let's talk briefly about the timing here and the rush to get this budget done before the holiday vacation.

WELNA: Well, you know, it's true that the current funding for the federal government does not run out until January 15th. But to avoid another shutdown, Congress before then will have to pass actual spending bills. And without a budget, appropriators would not know how much they'd have to spend in those bills. So presuming this budget passes this week - and it's still an if - appropriators will be scrambling throughout the holiday break to put together one big bill known as an omnibus that's made up of all the individual spending bills, and passing that would avert a shutdown. And then we'd all turn to the next crisis, a possible standoff over raising the debt ceiling in February or March.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Melissa.

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