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Once again, budget approval goes down to the wire

Two-year deal could end spending standoffs through 2017

The federal budget's days as a political weapon may be numbered.

But a sweeping tax and spending deal, negotiated by the White House and leaders of the House and Senate and approved by the House on Wednesday, still must pass the Senate.

At Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate, Sen. Rand Paul promised to block the two-year deal, which is supposed to avert another default to keep the government running into 2017.

"I will begin tomorrow to filibuster it," he said. "And I ask everyone in America to call Congress tomorrow and say enough is enough; no more debt."

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With the government down to less than a week's worth of cash, Congress is once again on the brink of letting the Treasury default on trillions of dollars in public debt. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said a default could come as early as Tuesday. Three years ago, a similar move cost the U.S. its triple-A credit rating, the first such downgrade in 70 years.

A deal announced Monday would suspend the limit on the government's borrowing authority, now maxed out at $18.1 trillion. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 would also provide some $80 billion in new spending on defense and discretionary programs, make changes to Social Security and Medicare and raise some revenues through the sale of broadcast spectrum and some of the government's crude oil stockpiles.

GOP presidential candidates in the Senate, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, also oppose the budget deal.

But because the measure has strong backing in the Senate, including the support of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., it remains to be seen whether opponents will be able to block the measure, which is expected to come up for a vote by the end of the week.

Approving the bill would avert a potential financial catastrophe sparked by a government default on U.S Treasury debt, as the government runs out of cash to pay interest on those securities. The last-minute budget wrangling has already given the financial markets jitters, with the yield on some short-term Treasurys spiking before the deal was announced.

The deal is designed to break the logjam that has stalled action on key budget measures for years and left the government lurching from one short-term spending measure to the next. Still unresolved, for example, is the fate of the nation's Highway Trust Fund, which is running on fumes as state governments scramble to find funds to repair crumbling roads and bridges and other aging infrastructure.

But while the agreement covers the broad outlines of a long-term spending plan, the heavy lifting for a specific budget remains. That haggling over appropriations will have to be completed before the latest round of temporary spending authorization expires on Dec. 11.

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"Settling the debate over top-line numbers will make this process easier," Molly E. Reynolds, a Brookings Institution fellow in governance studies, wrote in a recent blog post. "But, as is often the case with Congress, the devil may be in the details."

Those details also include a provision apparently intended to help assuage the fierce opposition to the deal from the Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen rebellious conservative Republicans who have upended past budget agreements.

The last provision in the bill, Title XII, designates the "first floor area of the House of Representatives wing of the U.S. Capitol known as the small House rotunda as Freedom Foyer."