A bipartisan budget deal aimed at calming debates over U.S. fiscal policy for the next two years cleared a key vote Tuesday in the Senate, reducing the risks of another government shutdown and spending cuts that would have had an outsized impact in Maryland.
But the agreement also sets up a tight timeline for congressional lawmakers — and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in particular — who now must decide by Jan. 15 how to divvy up $1 trillion-plus in spending.
The 67-33 vote all but guarantees that the bill will have the 50 votes needed for final passage Wednesday. The House approved the plan last week.
"The budget agreement is not perfect, but that's what legislation's all about," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the vote. "The American people like something to get done."
The deal replaces $63 billion in deep spending cuts known as sequestration that lawmakers in both parties had warned would lead to more federal worker furloughs in 2014. It would make possible a 1 percent raise for those employees, the first pay increase in three years, but would also require new federal hires to pay more toward their retirement.
Maryland is home to some 300,000 federal workers, who make up about a tenth of the state's workforce.
While Washington dodged the kind of entrenched end-of-year budget battle that has become common in recent years, work still remains to avert a government shutdown next month. The budget sets overall spending for agencies, but it is up to the appropriations committees in each chamber to decide which specific programs will receive more or less money.
For Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who was named to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee last year, the agreement provides one of the first opportunities to flex her muscle in the role. But it also leaves little time to negotiate specifics with her Republican counterpart in the House, Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky.
The Senate is expected to adjourn for its winter break on Friday and return on the week of Jan. 6 — giving Congress just over a week to approve a massive appropriations bill.
"She's going to work during the Christmas break," Reid said of Mikulski. "When we come back, she believes we'll have" legislation ready.
Mikulski said in a statement that the agreement would allow the appropriations committee to "end government on autopilot and write a funding bill for 2014 that will make smart choices for investing in infrastructure, education, and research and development."
Mikulski told The Baltimore Sun last week that she was confident the committees could finish their work by mid-January.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the legislation now in the Senate once the chamber gives its final approval.
The agreement would not have passed Tuesday's procedural hurdle without some GOP support.
"I voted in favor of it because it's the right thing to do," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. He said he made up his mind after hearing from voters over the weekend.
"I was surprised how many people said, 'Thank goodness you have found an agreement. … Finally you guys have gotten your act together,'" he said.
But Republicans who voted for the agreement brought more attention to the schism that has developed in the party over spending.
Tea party organizations exerted enormous pressure on Republicans to reject the deal because it would allow government spending to rise. Their influence was particularly apparent in states where Republican senators face primary challenges in next year's midterm elections.
The Senate's top two Republicans, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP whip, both voted against the deal. Each faces a primary challenge in 2014.
Sen. Lindsey Graham faces several challengers in South Carolina. He said he opposed the deal because it would cut retirement pay for younger military retirees.
"To me, in our effort to become functional, we have lost our way and, quite frankly, lost our soul," the Republican said.
"If we fail today, we're going to come back at this tomorrow and over and over again until the Congress finds its soul."
The compromise was struck by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman. It would increase spending by $63 billion over two years, replacing some of the sequester cuts to the Pentagon and social programs with other cuts.
Many in the GOP see those automatic cuts as their most tangible accomplishment in the budget battles.
No new taxes are included, as Republicans insisted. But new fees would be imposed on airline travel, and cuts would be made elsewhere in the federal budget. More than $22 billion would be applied to deficit reduction.
One of the fees included in the agreement would require farmers to pay for technical assistance they receive voluntarily from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stem watershed pollution.
A provision tucked into the agreement appears to exempt Maryland and other states that are required to take the steps to reduce agricultural runoff.
Sen. Ben Cardin had reservations about the budget deal, but ultimately voted for it.
"It does represent a true compromise," the Maryland Democrat said.
Standard & Poor's, the ratings firm, said Tuesday that it expects the deal "to be positive for the economy." But the firm said it would not change its outlook on the nation's debt, which suffered a rare downgrade after a 2011 congressional budget standoff.
And the agreement does nothing to address the next fight already taking shape on Capitol Hill: the battle over the debt ceiling. Obama has said he will not negotiate over raising the government's capacity to meet its obligations. Republicans insist presidents have done so for years.
Lawmakers agreed in October to extend the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.
The Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this story.
What's next for the federal budget?
•The Senate is expected to give final approval Wednesday.
• President Obama is expected to sign the budget agreement.
•Senate and House lawmakers will take the top line numbers in the budget and set funding levels for specific programs.
•Current government funding runs out Jan. 15.
•Congress must decide by early February whether to extend the debt ceilingCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun