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Divided House OKs 2-year deal on budget

WASHINGTON – A deeply divided House came together Wednesday to pass a two-year budget deal that local lawmakers greeted with a sigh of relief – not because of what the agreement does, but because of what it prevents.

The deal prevents huge cost increases for about 30 percent of senior citizens on Medicare. It prevents a cash shortfall next year in the Social Security Disability Insurance program, an increasingly important part of the social safety net. It could help prevent yet another government shutdown. And it ensures that America will not renege on its debts.

In other words, the deal – which passed by the House by a 266-167 vote and is expected to pass the Senate – aims to end crisis-driven budgeting in Congress at least until after a new president takes office in January 2017.

“I think it sends a positive message to the larger economy,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said regarding the deal. “Now we have certainty. Now we have clarity.”

The budget deal especially provides clarity for senior citizens, including many who would have faced huge Medicare cost increases next year if Congress had not acted in the deal to fix a quirk in previous law.

That quirk would have raised the cost of premiums for Medicare Part B – the section that covers costs other than hospitalization – from $104.90 per month this year to nearly $160 in 2016 for about 30 percent of seniors. The seniors who would have been affected would have primarily been those who don’t yet claim their Social Security benefits.

Under the budget bill, though, Medicare Part B rates will be $120 a month, plus a $3 surcharge. That’s a 17 percent increase, but far short of what seniors could have expected if Congress had not acted.

AARP praised the Medicare fix, as well as the provision of the bill bailing out the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which serves more than 27,000 people in Erie County alone.

The fund that pays for those disability benefits would have started running short of money next September, meaning benefits would have to be cut by about 20 percent. The fix transfers money from the larger Social Security retirement fund to the disability account, putting off any financial crisis for the disability program until the next decade.

The bill also includes several reforms to the Social Security disability program championed by Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who also voted for the overall measure. For example, the bill makes it a felony to fraudulently claim benefits, bars people from receiving Social Security disability and unemployment benefits at the same time, and encourages disability recipients to return to work if they become able to do so.

In addition, the budget bill makes a government shutdown less likely, as it sets federal spending limits for the 2016 fiscal year – which began Oct. 1 – as well as fiscal 2017. Those new limits for discretionary domestic and defense spending are about $80 billion higher than they were under “sequestration” limits set during an earlier budget battle.

“For months, we Democrats have asked for a budget that increases spending significantly above sequester levels and does so in a way that is equally balanced between defense and key middle-class programs,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “This agreement does both.”

Congress still will have to pass measures allocating funds for various government programs once a stopgap measure expires in early December. But the new guidelines set in the budget bill are expected to make it easier for lawmakers to draw up spending bills and pass them both in December and before the start of the 2017 fiscal year next October.

And perhaps most important, the bill raises the federal debt ceiling to a level the government is not expected to breach until March 2017.

Without action now, the government was expected to reach its debt ceiling next week, meaning that it would have to start defaulting on some of its debts.

Fears of the economic chaos that would result from a default prompted more moderate Republicans such as Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, to reluctantly support the bill.

“I am going to hold my nose and vote yes,” Collins said. “I am not going to support any initiative to shut down the government or put us in a position of defaulting on our national debt.”

Collins criticized the bill, though, for not offering any long-term solutions to the nation’s budget problems.

That’s just what troubled the Freedom Caucus, the far-right group of about 40 tea party lawmakers who fought departing House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, at every turn.

“This deal is an affront to open, accountable, and limited government,” the Freedom Caucus said in a statement. “It plunges our nation into debt to the tune of nearly $20 trillion, busts the spending caps enacted by Congress just a few years ago, perpetuates our looming entitlement crisis by pilfering money from Social Security, and contains budget and accounting gimmicks that are manifestly fraudulent.”

In total, 167 Republicans opposed the agreement, with many of them echoing the views of Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, who complained that regarding Social Security and other programs, the deal repeatedly shuffles money from one account to another with no consideration of the consequences.

“I will not sell our future for this year’s budget,” Issa said.

Boehner struck the deal with President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Republican and Democratic leadership of the Senate. And in doing so, Boehner left his likely successor – Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. – with a nearly clean slate to work with.

For his part, Ryan tried to have it both ways on the budget deal, criticizing it yet voting for it.

He said the process that led to the deal “stinks.” But he added: “It’s time for us to turn the page on the last few years and get to work on a bold agenda that we can take to the American people.”