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Done deal: Senate passes budget bill

Despite complaints from conservative and moderate Republicans alike, the Senate passed a bill setting spending levels for the next two years.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) waits for the Senate subway after a vote December 17, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) waits for the Senate subway after a vote December 17, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 

The Senate passed a bipartisan budget deal Wednesday that sets spending levels for the next two years, sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

The deal, brokered by Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, eliminates $63 billion of sequester cuts -- about one-third of the total -- in exchange for future savings from spending cuts and fee increases.

"If we didn't get a deal, we would have faced another continuing resolution that would have locked in those damaging automatic cuts -- or worse, a potential government shutdown in just a few short weeks," Murray said in a floor speech shortly before the vote.

The budget agreement passed by a wide 64-36 margin. The outcome was not in doubt, coming a day after 12 Republicans joined Democrats to end a GOP fliibuster of the deal in a 67-33 vote. The House already passed the bill by a wide margin earlier this month. 

It was a rare moment of bipartisan comity for the Republican-controled House and Democratic Senate after October's 16-day government shutdown, in which GOP leaders unsuccessfully attempted to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act. Many of the same conservative groups that egged on the shutdown, such as Heritage Action, also opposed the budget deal as insufficiently austere. This time, Republican lawmakers were much less receptive to their arguments. House Speaker John Boehner publicly rebuked his critics on the right and faced few hurdles in rounding up the votes needed to pass the agreement. 

There was some moderate opposition as well. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, two lawmakers who have signed onto bipartisan spending deals in the past, objected to a provision reducing benefits by $6 billion for certain mlitary retirees. Graham is up for re-election next year and faces a Republican primary challenge.

The deal caps off a year in which Republicans ground the presidents' legislative agenda to a halt, eventually prompting the Senate to eliminate filibusters on his appointments and judicial picks. At this point, "progress" may be defined down to keeping the government open without incident.

But even that goal may still prove difficult. Republicans are considering staging a fight over the debt ceiling, which must be raised in February to ward off a financial catastrophe. 

“We don’t want ‘nothing’ out of the debt limit,” Ryan told Fox News on Sunday. “We’re going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight.”

There's also still plenty of room for fights over how to distribute spending under the agreed-upon overall levels. Immigration remains another flashpoint as the House still has not followed through on their leaders' repeated intentions to work out a plan for reform. At this point, it would take a shocking election-year change in the dynamic between the House and Senate to avoid finishing the session among the least productive Congresses in history.