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Congressional leaders agree on budget deal

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Shedding gridlock, key members of Congress reached a modest budget agreement Tuesday to restore about $63 billion in automatic spending cuts from programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon and eliminate the threat of another partial government shutdown early next year.

The increases would be offset by a variety of spending reductions and higher fees elsewhere in the budget totaling about $85 billion over a decade, enough for a largely symbolic cut of more than $20 billion in the nation's debt, now $17 trillion and growing.

Federal civilian and military workers, airline travelers and health care providers who treat Medicare patients would bear much of the cost.

Significantly for Democrats, they failed in their bid to include an extension of benefits for workers unemployed longer than 26 weeks. The program expires on Dec. 28, when payments will be cut off for an estimated 1.3 million individuals.

Bipartisan approval is expected in both houses in the next several days, despite grumbling from liberals over the omission of the unemployment extension and even though tea party-aligned groups have already begun pushing Republican conservatives to oppose it.

The budget deal is one of a handful of measures left on Congress' to-do list near the end of a year that produced a partial government shutdown, a flirtation with a first-ever federal default and gridlock on President Barack Obama's call for gun control, an overhaul of immigration laws and more.

The White House quickly issued a statement from Obama praising the deal as a "good first step."

He urged lawmakers to both parties to follow up and "actually pass a budget based on this agreement so I can sign it into law and our economy can continue growing and creating jobs without more Washington headwinds."

Congress' two budget negotiators hailed their own work.

The deal "reduces the deficit by $23 billion and it does not raise taxes. It cuts spending in a smarter way" than the ones in effect, said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee and was his party's negotiator in several weeks of secretive talks.

His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said, "We have broken through the partisanship and gridlock" that could have produced a government shutdown in January.

The legislation that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October expires on Jan. 15, and the agreement between Murray and Ryan stipulates a new spending level for the remainder of the current budget year as well as the one that begins next Oct. 1.

The $63 billion in restoration of across-the-board spending would be doled out across this budget year and the next, which ends on Sept. 30, 2015.

The offsetting $85 billion in deficit cuts would play out over a decade. They call for newly hired federal workers to make larger contributions to their own pensions, as well as an increase in a federal airport security fee that would add $5 to the cost of a typical roundtrip flight. Also included were unspecified savings from military retirement programs.

More savings would come from extending an existing 2 percent cut in payments to providers who treat Medicare patients.

Full details were unavailable pending their posting on budget committee websites.

Murray and Ryan had scarcely finished lauding their work when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and a potential 2016 presidential contender, announced he would oppose it.

"We need a government with less debt and an economy with more good paying jobs, and this budget fails to accomplish both goals," he said in a statement.

Even some of the bill's supporters stopped short of describing it in glowing terms.

"While modest in scale, this agreement represents a positive step forward by replacing one-time spending cuts with permanent reforms to mandatory spending programs that will produce real, lasting savings," said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Even before the deal was announced, conservative organizations were attacking the proposal as a betrayal of a hard-won 2011 agreement that reduced government spending and is counted as among the main accomplishments of tea party-aligned Republicans who came to power earlier the same year in the House.

Americans for Prosperity issued a midmorning statement saying that GOP lawmakers should uphold current spending levels. Otherwise, the group said, "congressional Republicans are joining liberal Democrats in breaking their word to the American people to finally begin reining in government overspending that has left us over $17 trillion in debt."

A day earlier, Heritage Action issued a similar broadside, saying it could not support a deal that "would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions." The group played an influential behind-the-scenes role earlier this fall in events that led to a partial government shutdown, supporting a strategy of refusing to provide needed funds for federal programs until the health care law known as "Obamacare" was defunded.

For their part, liberals were unhappy that the deal was likely to lack an extension of benefits for unemployed workers more than 26 weeks off the job.

The party's leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said at one point last week that her rank and file would insist on an extension for the unemployment program as a condition for supporting a budget deal.

The White House pointedly refused to support her position, and she later made additional comments that her staff characterized as a clarification.

Given the internal GOP divisions in the House, Boehner is likely to need Democratic votes to approve any deal by Ryan and Murray. It was not immediately clear how many Democratic lawmakers would support a plan that lacked an extension of unemployment benefits.

Some Democratic officials suggested a possible two-step solution. It included swift passage of any budget agreement that emerges, and then adding an extension of unemployment benefits to must-pass legislation early next year, perhaps a measure to reverse a looming cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

The bipartisan push for a budget agreement stems from automatic cuts that are themselves the consequence of divided government's ability to complete a sweeping deficit reduction package in 2011.

If left in place, the reductions would carve $91 billion in the current budget year from the day-to-day budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies when compared with spending limits set by the hard-fought 2011 budget agreement.

Support for a deal to ease the reductions is strongest in Congress among defense hawks in both houses and both parties who fear the impact on military readiness from a looming $20 billion cut in Pentagon spending.

The White House wanted a deal for a same reason, but also to ease the impact of automatic cuts on domestic programs from education to transportation to the national parks.

In a statement from President Obama, he writes:

This agreement doesn't include everything I'd like - and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That's the nature of compromise. But it's a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven decision-making to get this done. That's the way the American people expect Washington to work. I want to thank Senator Murray, Congressman Ryan and all the other leaders who helped forge this bipartisan agreement. And I want to call on Members of Congress from both parties to take the next step and actually pass a budget based on this agreement so I can sign it into law and our economy can continue growing and creating jobs without more Washington headwinds.

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