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Budget Deal: Too Small To Fail?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'd like to thank my colleague Celeste Headlee for sitting in for me on short notice so that I could handle a family matter. Later on, speaking of family matters, we'll talk about a conversation you might've had in your family about appropriate behavior at a funeral or memorial service. We're talking about this because critics have been calling out President Obama for taking a cellphone picture at the Nelson Mandela memorial and a few other things. We'll get perspective on this with someone who actually teaches etiquette to those taking up diplomatic posts. So that conversation is later.

First, though, we want to talk politics as Congress wraps up its work for the year. Lawmakers have some important unfinished business including the budget. A deal was struck earlier this week that supporters say would prevent another government shutdown. It would roll back some of those sequester cuts and, at the same time, bring down the long-term deficit. As you might imagine, there is a wide range of opinion about this. And there are also some significant steps left before the matter becomes law. So we wanted to tell you more about all this. We've called Ron Elving. He's the senior Washington editor for NPR. Ron, welcome back.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Always good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Callie Crossley. She's host of Under the Radar on member station WGBH in Boston. Callie, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

CALLIE CROSSLEY: Well, thank you. Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Ron, let's start with you. You know, cynics might be forgiven if they said we've been here before. Congress has come close to a deal before and then, for various reasons, it fell apart. Does it seem as though this deal is one that will hold or at least has some center of gravity to it?

ELVING: This one has some momentum for a couple of reasons. Number one, it's not that big a deal. It's a small-ball deal. It's a little bridge. And it just gets us through to these next set of deadlines that we've got coming up in January and February having to do with continuing spending by the government and the authority to spend so the government doesn't shut down, and also having to do with the debt limit. This actually is the budget resolution. It doesn't accomplish those things.

It just sets up a framework in which they can get done. But that's crucial because that's what we've been lacking now for years. This looks like a two-year deal that could take us to October of 2015. Boy, does that sound like a nice long time away that we wouldn't have to worry about government shutdowns. We wouldn't have to worry about having these fiscal cliffs. And we would have, essentially, a framework for the government to operate in.

MARTIN: Are leaders on both sides supporting it?

ELVING: Yes, basically. The Republicans are. The Democrats are. There are big, big question marks, big, big objections on both sides, which we can get into. And, of course, we don't know that the votes will all be there. But right now, it feels like a deal. It feels like it's going to work in the House. And in the Senate, it should pass pretty easily with most all the Democrats being for it.

MARTIN: Ron, I'm going to ask you to stand by because, of course, I want to hear what people who were opposing it have to say, or at least people who were criticizing it at this point. Callie, I want to turn to you. I actually heard about this as I was traveling and saw one of the cable channels at a rest stop that travelers like myself are always happy to see - kind of one of those oases on the turnpike. And I was the only person there who seemed interested.

And I was - and when I saw the news break, I went, wow, that's interesting. And I looked around and no one else cared. And so I'm wondering if that kind of is where the public is right now, for the most part. Is it that people are so used to seeing Congress go to the brink and then, you know, the brink actually happens? Do you sense any interest in this?

CROSSLEY: Well, there is interest. But there's also a great deal of a lot of people being from Missouri today. Show me that this is really going to go through. I think a lot of people had on their minds the fact that this upcoming, looming - another government shutdown. Another - are we facing a fiscal cliff? So Ron is exactly right. The timing of this, I think, gives the folks who are to make those votes some momentum.

And maybe some backbone to vote it, I don't know. But for the rest of us, we're just so tired of being taken to the brink and worried about what's going to happen if these other sequester cuts go through. So I think there is - show me that it's really going to happen. And it's also a little bit of holding your breath 'cause you want it to happen because these - if it doesn't, the rest of the sequester cuts are really awful.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that from you, Callie, in a minute, too. Ron, first, go back to the critics. I mean, you say - so the leadership is there. What about the people who aren't there? Is there any center of gravity or momentum around the critics of the deal? And what are their substance of concerns?

ELVING: Some of the conservatives feel that the sequester is the greatest thing, really, that they've got going. They would prefer something else, perhaps. But they do like the idea that there are forced cuts that are across the board - about 10 percent of the total discretionary budget, which is about a trillion dollars a year. And they think that that's really the best thing they've been able to achieve in years and years and years of fighting against government and deficit spending - and fighting against government in general. That's on the one hand.

On the other hand, there are a lot of Democrats who feel like there isn't nearly enough being done here to restore some of the programs that have taken a hard hit, that have primarily the responsibility of helping the poor. And that a big symbol of that is that unemployment benefits that are expiring - extended unemployment benefits that are extending to the end of this year - are going to expire with the first of January. And right at this time of year, of course, to lose even a rather insubstantial amount of money is really a tough blow for a lot of families.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about year-end politics on Capitol Hill. We're hearing about the agreement - a budget agreement that seems to have been arrived at on Capitol Hill. I'm speaking with Ron Elving here in Washington and Callie Crossly of member station WGBH in Boston. She's host of Under the Radar. Callie, could you talk a little bit about the sequester cuts? I mean, you were saying that there was this feeling of kind of, oh, no, we can't take any more of this.

Could you talk a little bit about how some of these cuts to this point - or how this uncertainty around the budget is affecting the area where you are? I mean, you have a really diverse economy there - you have a lot of high tech companies, you have a lot of higher education institutions, things of that sort. Talk a little bit about that if you would.

CROSSLEY: And some military. We - you know, the hardest hit - I think when people were using the sequester terminology early on - as probably happened across the country - people were like, yeah, I'm not quite sure what that means. But when it started upending all of the positions for Head Start, for example, that hit home in a real way here. And in some of the communities that have depended on that and have given so many kids a head start, literally, that just went away. So people saw what the real deal was with - and those were the past sequester cuts. We're not even talking about what happens if this deal as it is a positive right now doesn't go through, which will either slow or at least cut down on some of the upcoming cuts.

Same thing with military, there's some more military cuts that are involved here. We're talking about retirees. There's a lot of military retirees in our area. So these things are very real. This is not in the abstract. This, people are holding their breath about. And let's not even talk about the unemployment benefits - that's a big thing, which is not taken care of in this deal. And I don't know what happens with that. So all of that on the table had made people quite anxious. As we know, people are not spending as they might if they felt a little bit more comfortable, if they had money to spend. And then a lot of people are truly, truly suffering.

MARTIN: Can you talk just briefly, Callie, to the degree that you know - I know this is just - this news has just emerged in the last sort of day or so - what's the disposition of the lawmakers up there who have to vote on this? What are they saying so far about their disposition toward this agreement?

CROSSLEY: Well, we're pretty much blue here, as you know. Even though most people in the state are unenrolled, they lean Democratic. We just had a special election and elected a new member, the last member of our delegation, that's Katherine Clark. She'll be taking the space that Ed Markey left when he became a senator. And she was already on the record saying, you know, I am really fed up with, what she describes as, extreme Republican cuts and lack of empathy for people's circumstances.

So she's going, you know, with a fire in her to be a vote to stop some of that. And we know that Elizabeth Warren is our lead person in our delegation at this point. And, you know, folks are attacking her for being too liberal. So that's where our folks are coming from. That's not that there aren't people here who are saying we have to pay attention to what the deficit means as well. People want responsible cuts, though, they don't want across the board. And they want to know that their lawmakers are paying attention to their needs here on the ground.

MARTIN: Ron, before we let you go can you just tell us what to look forward to at the end of the year here as Congress kind of wraps up its work? Can you just tell us what we should anticipate? And are there issues that Congress did not get to and are not likely to get to?

ELVING: Oh my - oh my, yes. What they will get to...

MARTIN: ...You're saying you don't even have time for all that, to tell you all that.


ELVING: It's quite a list. What we do know they're going to do is this budget deal. If they do have the votes in the House, they'll get that through this evening. And then it will go to the Senate where it will probably be passed quite easily next week. They will throw into that little package all kinds of other things they could not otherwise probably get done, like an extension on the farm bill, which is otherwise going to leave a lot of programs, including food stamps and so forth, hanging fire. So they're going to put about a 30 or 60-day extension into the bill for the farm bill. Then they're also going to take care of what they call the doc-fix.

This has to do with compensation of physicians under Medicare, and it's very important - very important to hospitals, especially hospitals with acute care. So they're going to get these things done as part of the budget resolution tonight. But there's a huge list. Let's talk just for a moment about immigration. This was to be the year of immigration reform. This was the year they were really going to really tackle it. The Senate did it. The Senate did it early. The Senate did a good job, reasonable job. And they got a bipartisan bill out, and the House has refused to consider it. There was a gun bill, of course, couldn't even get through the Senate because they couldn't get 60 votes.

And they couldn't shut off debates, so they couldn't get a bill and send it over to the House. There have been any number of other issues where either the House has passed something, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, which the Senate would not take up, or where the Senate passed something, such as immigration, and the House wouldn't take it up. It was been a big gridlock year. And it'll be remember, of course, for the rollout also of the Affordable Care Act.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. That was going to be my final question was, how are you going to remember this year?

ELVING: Well, I mean, we're going to remember it as the year of a government shutdown, as the year of all these failures, all this gridlock between the two chambers of Congress, between the two parties in Congress, the president's dream of having a second term, in which as he put it, the fever would break and people would accept him as president and people would accept his leadership. Well, that dream pretty much died in 2013.

MARTIN: Ron Elving is NPR senior Washington editor. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from member station WGBH in Boston, Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar. Thank you both so much for joining us, and happy holidays to you both.

ELVING: Happy holidays to you, Michel.

CROSSLEY: Happy holidays. Yes, happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.