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Budget deal splits GOP leaders in House, Senate

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 7:17 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leaders are criticizing a bipartisan budget deal, parting ways with their House counterparts who shepherded the measure through that chamber last week.

The split makes it harder for the Republican Party to present a united front as it approaches the midterm election year. And it shows that even modest tweaks in tax and spending policies trigger strong reactions in conservative circles.

Still, senators in both parties say the budget deal should have enough votes to pass and become law, perhaps by Wednesday. And some GOP activists play down the House-Senate divide's implications, saying it's driven by internal congressional politics more than by serious philosophical splits.

"Our leadership gets along pretty well, and coordinates pretty well with each other," said Terry Holt, a longtime Republican strategist and former congressional staffer with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Holt said it's not unusual for the minority party in the House or Senate to force the other party to provide the overwhelming majority of votes for contentious legislation.

Republicans control the House, and they provided more than half the "yes" votes when the budget deal passed the House 332 to 94. But Republicans hold only 45 of the Senate's 100 seats. GOP leaders are doing little or nothing to help the budget bill survive Tuesday, when a key procedural vote is scheduled.

"This is one of those votes you see fairly regularly," Holt said. "If they don't need people's votes, they don't push them."

Republicans note that a Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, voted in 2006 against raising the federal debt ceiling, when Republican George W. Bush was president. When Obama became president, he chided Republicans for opposing the same type of debt ceiling increases.

The bipartisan budget bill, which Obama supports, would restore about $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect over the next two years. It calls for $85 billion in budget savings over the next decade. Among other things, it would extend existing cuts to Medicare providers, raise airline security fees and require federal civilian employees to pay more of their pension costs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he opposes the budget deal. The Senate's second-ranking GOP leader, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has criticized it too. His campaign website stated Monday, "Senator Cornyn Opposes the Latest Budget Deal," but the article was removed from the site late in the day.

McConnell and Cornyn face tea party-backed Republican primary challengers in their re-election bids next year. Such challenges make it difficult for Republicans to back a bipartisan budget measure that hard-core conservatives criticize because it eases scheduled spending cuts, former GOP congressional aide John Feehery said.

McConnell repeatedly has defended the "sequester" cuts that the budget bill would reduce, Feehery noted. So the senator could open himself up to fierce criticism if he backed the compromise measure.

"It would be nice to get everyone on the same page," Feehery said. "But it's probably too much to ask."

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president, said the majority party must show it can govern if it's to remain in power. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was the top Republican in shaping the compromise plan now awaiting Senate action.

When a Republican senator's criticisms were noted last week, Ryan dismissed them on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," saying, "Read the deal and get back to me."

"In the minority, you don't have the burden of governing, of getting things done," Ryan said.

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