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Washington Digest: Congress gives final OK to budget deal

WASHINGTON — Congress last week completed action on a two-year budget blueprint aimed at averting another government shutdown and blunting the sharp impact of a second round of sequestration cuts.

The Senate voted 64-36 for the agreement to cap annual discretionary spending at just over $1 trillion in 2014 and 2015. The House adopted the measure a week earlier.

With the bottom line set, lawmakers said Congress should be able to approve appropriations bills for the 2014 fiscal year in time to avoid another shutdown as occurred for 16 days in October.

The deal, which was brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also restores $63 billion in spending that would have been cut under the 2011 “sequester” law. The spending would be offset with $85 billion in revenues from other areas over the next decade, leaving $23 billion more for deficit reduction.

Critics of the bill said it was no more than a short-term fix that failed to address tax reform, nor Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs that contribute to the government’s debt problems.

Republicans and Democrats voiced strong opposition to at least one of the offsets. It would save about $6.3 billion through a reduction in the cost-of-living adjustments on pension benefits paid to military retirees ages 40 to 62.

Several senators vowed to find another revenue source to replace it when they return in January. Some senators also pledged to at least protect the cost-of-living adjustments for disabled military retirees.

President Barack Obama was expected to sign the budget bill into law.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted for the bill. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.

DEFENSE BILL PASSED

The Senate voted 84-15 to approve a national defense authorization bill that will allow about $633 billion in spending by the Pentagon, including the war in Afghanistan.

Aside from spending, the bill establishes stricter policies over how the military is to treat sexual assault claims. Sens. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., pressed the issue earlier in the year.

Obama issued a statement commending Congress for its efforts to prevent sexual assault in the military and strengthen protections for victims. He also directed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to complete by December 2014 a full-scale review of the Pentagon’s efforts on this issue.

“If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms,” Obama said.

Reid and Heller voted in favor of the bill.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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