WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional negotiators set to work Wednesday trying to sell a compromise budget plan to conservatives who are upset by continued deficit spending and liberals who want an extension of unemployment benefits for long-term jobless Americans. President Barack Obama called the agreement a good first step, one that would prevent another government shutdown early next year.
The path to the bipartisan deal was greased by falling poll numbers for both Democrats, who control the Senate, and Republicans, who control the House of Representatives.
Democrats are taking a major hit over the flawed roll-out of the president's massive health care overhaul. Republicans have lost favor for having forced the 16-day government shutdown and bringing the U.S. to the brink of a debt default in October, when budget negotiations fell apart over the opposition party's attempt to derail the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The shutdown cost the government and the economy billions of dollars.
In welcome news to House Republican leaders, Rep. Jeff Miller said most Republicans would back the deal worked out by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
The House plans to vote before it adjourns for the year Friday.
There was some grumbling from liberals and conservatives over the pact's failure to solve long-term tax and spending issues and address expiring unemployment benefits.
Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, announced his opposition, saying that "undoing tens of billions of this modest spending restraint is shameful and must be opposed."
But House Speaker John Boehner dismissed criticism from groups such as Heritage Action, which raise money as they criticize Republicans for being insufficiently conservative.
"They're using our members and they're using the American people to further their own goals," Boehner said. "This is ridiculous."
Some House Democrats were less than enthusiastic, too.
"Stay tuned," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when asked about whether Democrats would support the bill.
The deal reached Tuesday restores about $63 billion in across-the-board automatic spending cuts to programs ranging from parks to the Defense Department. Those crude cuts — known as the sequester — were the delayed result of yet another failure by Congress to negotiate a deal on government spending, that time back in 2011.
Congress needed to reach a deal this time because the legislation that ended the partial government shutdown in October expires on Jan. 15. The agreement stipulates a new spending level for the remainder of the current budget year as well as the one that begins next Oct. 1.
The deal is aimed less at chipping away at the $17 trillion national debt more at trying to stop Washington from lurching from crisis to crisis. It would set the stage for action in January on a $1 trillion-plus spending bill for the budget year that began in October. An estimate by the Congressional Budget Office says that the deal would add $23 billion to the deficit for the ongoing 2014 budget year and add another $22.3 billion over the 2015-16 timeframe.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday praising the bill for "critical investments in areas such as education, infrastructure, and scientific research, while keeping the Nation on the path to long-term deficit reduction."
But the plan does nothing to address three of the big drivers of deficit spending — the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly, the Medicaid program for the poor and the Social Security government pension system.
While Tuesday's agreement would have little impact on the nation's debt and deficits, it holds the potential for avoiding politically charged budget clashes as it eases the sequester spending cuts for the next year or two. It also was reached without the threat of an impending catastrophic deadline hanging over lawmakers' heads.
The measure unveiled by Ryan, a Republican, and his Senate counterpart Murray, blends $85 billion in spending cuts and revenue from new and extended fees to replace $63 billion in cuts to agency budgets over the coming two years.
Obama praised the deal as a "good first step." In a statement, he urged lawmakers in both parties to follow up and "actually pass a budget based on this agreement so I can sign it into law and our economy can continue growing and creating jobs without more Washington headwinds."
The plan pales compared with earlier, failed attempts at a "grand bargain" that would trade tax hikes for structural curbs to ever-growing benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security, which provides monthly pension benefits to senior citizens. But it would at least bring some stability on the budget to an institution — Congress — whose approval ratings are at all-time lows.
Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate, said the agreement "makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January. It makes sure that we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October."
Ryan pitched the measure to skeptical conservatives at a closed-door meeting Wednesday. Democrats were set to discuss it as well.