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House approves budget deal over token conservative opposition

The House of Representatives approved a modest budget agreement that would essentially forestall the threat of a government shutdown through late 2015 in a Thursday evening vote.

The budget framework, which enjoys the support of President Barack Obama, passed in a 332 to 94 vote, an overwhelming show of bipartisan unity that trumped the token opposition from 62 conservative Republicans. The Senate could approve the legislation next week.

The budget represented a modest compromise that didn't satisfy either party. Speaker John Boehner had chastised conservatives and outside advocacy groups for mobilizing against the deal before its terms were finalized.

"Is it perfect? Does it go far enough? No, not at all," the speaker said in a floor speech before the vote. "But this budget is a positive step in that direction; it's progress."

Democrats weren't fully mollified, either: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., encouraged fellow Democrats to "embrace the suck" and support the measure during a closed-door meeting at the Capitol on Thursday.

Following the bill's passage, White House press secretary Jay Carney called the agreement "an important moment of bipartisan cooperation and shows Washington can and should stop governing by crisis," while noting it did not include everything the president called for.

The legislation is a modest agreement that sidesteps some of the most vexing fiscal issues facing the nation, including tax rates and spending on entitlement programs. It instead sets baseline spending levels for the next two years, the specifics of which will be detailed by appropriators.

Your guide to the budget deal compromise

Most significantly, the agreement – forged by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for House Republicans and Washington Sen. Patty Murray for Senate Democrats – sets spending levels slightly above the caps established by the automatic spending cuts known as the “sequester,” which took effect earlier this year. The higher spending is financed by cuts and reforms in the budget, and new, non-tax revenue. The negotiations were borne from the agreement to end a protracted government shutdown in October.

And though leaders of both parties have previously decried the sequester cuts for their indiscriminate cuts to the budget, some conservatives have balked at approving the bipartisan budget deal precisely because it busts sequester spending caps.

The internal GOP rift over the spending deal has once again laid bare the divisions between the party’s elected leaders and its activist wing. Conservative advocacy groups had begun to mobilize against the budget framework before its details were formally announced, which has prompted rare reprisals from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

“Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility,” Boehner said of groups like the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, at a press conference on Thursday. Those conservative groups have said they’ll track lawmakers’ votes for “scorecards” that serve as metrics for Republican lawmakers’ conservatism. A low mark on those scorecards can sometime endanger incumbents locked in primary battles versus challengers.

Still, the budget framework appears likely to win over a number of GOP lawmakers, and perhaps fare even better among Republicans than did the October legislation to reopen the government and extend the nation’s debt limit.

Even if some Republicans do jump ship, House Democrats appear prepared to support the budget agreement in large numbers. Progressive groups have expressed their misgivings about the legislation for excluding an extension of unemployment benefits, and for not going far enough to address sequester cuts. But those liberal objections have been far less vocal or influential than the protests to have emerged on the right.

“I don’t think our members will let this bill go down,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday, adding that while she does not like the bill, “it’s an okay thing to vote for.”

The legislation would next travel to the Senate, which is locked in a series of acrimonious fights involving presidential nominations that kept the chamber in session overnight on Wednesday evening and into Thursday morning. Still, Democratic leaders have said that they intend to move forward with the budget agreement before leaving town for the holidays.

More significantly to Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday that he’ll bring up an extension of unemployment benefits as his first item of business in the new year. The fate of that legislation in the House is anything but clear, though.

Still, the speedy passage of a consensus budget bill offered a marked contrast from a Congress that has governed largely from deadline-to-deadline for much of the past three years. The agreement would seem to clear the way for other legislative efforts in 2014, like immigration reform or gun control, though those initiatives still face a tricky path ahead.

Lawmakers will also have to confront another dollars-and-cents deadline come early February, when the most recent extension of the debt limit expires. Though Republicans had previously tried to use that deadline as leverage to extract concessions from Obama and congressional Democrats, they might be disinclined to try that again after being chastened by this October’s showdown.

NBC News’ Carrie Dann contributed to this report.