WASHINGTON — A bipartisan agreement to ease sharp spending cuts known as the sequester cleared its last major hurdle Tuesday, as 67 senators voted to advance the measure in hopes of ending nearly three years of political gridlock over the budget.
Despite the opposition of conservative advocacy groups and late-breaking concerns about proposed reductions to military pensions, 12 Republicans joined all 55 members of the Senate Democratic caucus in voting to proceed to a final vote, expected to occur this evening.
Florida's senators were split, with Democrat Bill Nelson voting to shut off debate and Republican Marco Rubio voting against.
The measure is a modest package of fees and spending cuts designed to replace about half the sequester cuts in the current fiscal year and avert another government shutdown. The plan would spend at a rate of $1.012 trillion for this fiscal year and slightly more next year. Current funding is set at an annualized rate of $986 billion.
"There's a heavy sigh going on in our caucus right now, because people like me are looking at this and saying, 'Is it a good deal? No. But is it a deal? Yeah,' " said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who voted to advance the legislation. "I have tried to look at this on balance. And on balance, the benefit of having a deal is better than no deal."
The agreement was brokered on the heels of a 16-day government shutdown in October that riled taxpayers and sent approval ratings for congressional Republicans plummeting in public opinion polls. After nearly two months of talks, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last week announced the deal, which would ease the impact of the sequester without raising taxes or cutting popular retirement programs.
"We have lurched from one crisis to another, from one fiscal cliff to the next," Murray said before the vote. "I am hopeful this deal can be the first of many bipartisan deals that can rebuild some of the trust."
Although the agreement sailed through the House on a landslide vote of 332-94, problems quickly cropped up in the Senate. Potential GOP presidential hopefuls, including Rubio, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, opposed it because it would increase spending now in exchange for the promise of budget cuts later.
A number of Republican incumbents facing primary challenges from the right also chimed in, including Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, whose GOP opponent, Chris McDaniel, on Monday urged Cochran to oppose the "disastrous," "deficit-increasing legislation."
Some Democrats grumbled that the deal includes no provision for extending unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless. Those benefits are set to expire at the end of December, cutting off 1.3 million people.