WASHINGTON Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday were falling in line behind a two-year budget deal negotiated behind closed doors, indicating that the normally rambunctious group of lawmakers is not spoiling for a year-end fiscal fight.
Despite conservative groups denouncing the $85 billion plan, the Republican-controlled House could vote as early as Thursday to lock into place a measure that would minimize chances of any further government shutdowns at least until October 2015.
Passage in the House, just before the chamber recesses on Friday for the year, would all but guarantee the same in the Senate, probably next week.
Representative Tom Cole told reporters that a majority of his fellow House Republicans would vote for the budget deal, which would replace some of the indiscriminate, across-the-board agency spending cuts scheduled for the next two years.
"A lot of support was expressed for it" during a closed meeting of House Republicans, Cole told reporters.
Fitch Ratings said that while the bipartisan budget agreement reduces the risk of damaging perceptions of the country's creditworthiness, it nonetheless leaves U.S. sovereign credit vulnerable to a downgrade.
The plan announced late on Tuesday by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, a Democrat, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican, marked a shift away from three years of budget standoffs.
Those standoffs became so partisan that they led to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October after many federal agencies were left with no money to operate.
The sea change in a Congress that opinion polls show is scorned by the public also came as Republicans are investing nearly all of their energy in showcasing problems with President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law.
Another messy fight over the budget could have taken attention away from the program known as Obamacare after Republicans have scored public relations gains from its flawed rollout in October.
Republicans have openly acknowledged that they also did not want a budget fight to tamp down consumer confidence during the Christmas season that is so crucial to retailers. At the same time, they have resisted Democratic efforts during budget negotiations to extend federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, which are set to expire later this month.
With 1.3 million people set to lose those benefits amid a 7 percent national jobless rate, the Obama administration said the economy could take a hit as long-term unemployed people have less money to spend.
House Speaker John Boehner blamed the White House for the lack of action on jobless benefits, saying he had not seen an acceptable proposal from the administration.
Boehner's spokesmen would not comment on whether he would bring a bill of his own to the House floor for a vote and there was widespread speculation that Congress would leave for a holiday break without renewing the benefit.
"It's absolutely unconscionable that we are - could possibly even consider leaving Washington, D.C., without extending those benefits," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters.
It was unclear whether lawmakers will make another attempt at extending them in January.
CONSERVATIVE LAWMAKERS' SUPPORT
In past budget battles, many conservative House Republicans refused to back legislation negotiated by Boehner or his subordinates.
This time, many of them were lining up behind their leaders.
"I'm leaning yes," said Representative Tim Griffin, a conservative Republican from Arkansas, who said it would avoid future government shutdowns and "locks in some certainty, which I think the economy needs and the American people need."
Tea Party-backed Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who described himself as one of the most conservative members of the House and who cheered on the October government shutdown, told reporters he also was leaning toward voting yes.
"It restores regular order," Fleming said. "And we begin some mandatory spending reform. I think that's huge."
While organizations such as the Business Roundtable, a chief executive group, urged passage of the Murray-Ryan deal, several conservative groups that are influential with Republicans called for killing it.
"This proposal swaps debt reduction today and next year for the dubious promise of debt reduction a decade from now," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said on Wednesday.
Signaling deep divisions within the Republican Party, Chocola added: "We stand with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Coburn, Rand Paul" and other Republican lawmakers who have announced their opposition to the deal.
Other conservative groups, which announced their opposition well before the deal was completed, drew Boehner's ire.
"They're using our members, and they're using the American people, for their own goals. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you're for more deficit reduction, you're for this agreement," Boehner said.
Democrats, who are disappointed by the failure to get a deal on jobless benefits, said they were still weighing the budget pact. Some Democratic votes likely will be needed to pass the bill in the House.
Some high-ranking House Democrats such as Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, however, called the deal "a small, but good step forward for our country."
(Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Fred Barbash, Vicki Allen and Jim Loney)