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Budget bipartisanship may be short-lived

U.S. Capitol building
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U.S. Capitol building

After years of fiscal gridlock, Washington may be taking a break from using the federal budget as a political weapon.

But the rare outbreak of bipartisanship may be short-lived.

The Senate early Friday approved a sweeping tax and spending bill, negotiated by the White House and leaders of the House and Senate, that would suspend the cap on federal borrowing and fund the government until 2017. The 65-35 vote, arranged in the middle of the night to head off a threatened filibuster, came after congressional leadership bypassed opponents to strike a deal with the White House.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who helped negotiate the agreement, praised the measure for rejecting tax increases and said that the added spending called for in the measure would be offset by savings elsewhere in the government.

With less than a week's worth of cash, the government was once again on the brink of letting the Treasury default on trillions of dollars in public debt, which would have unleashed turmoil in the financial markets. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had said a default could have 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.

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

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

"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."

Despite the bipartisan agreement, the spending plan faced fierce opposition in the House from the Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen rebellious conservative Republicans who have upended past budget agreements.

In the Senate, GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky also strongly oppose the deal.

The two-tear budget agreement 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.

The broad agreement postpones the next major budget battle until after the 2016 election. But it failed to tackle major, long-term problems, including the financial deterioration of Social Security and Medicare and the bloated U.S. tax code.

"There remain plenty of risks to the fiscal outlook," said Oren Klachkin, senior economist at Oxford Economics. "Lawmakers are likely to continue hobbling between short-term solutions, refusing to tackle bigger problems that might hurt their image with voters."