A budget truce: Kumbaya on Capitol Hill?!

    Throw the confetti, clang the church bells, and smooch in the streets! C’mon everybody, it’s V-B Day!

    I say that in jest; I know that Victory-Budget Day is not exactly a cause for national celebration. But let’s at least take a few moments to marvel at the news out of Washington last night, the revelation that warring partisans have bridged their usual chasm and forged a peace pact – in the form of a federal budget deal that would actually keep the government open and operational for the next two years.

    I would’ve sooner expected to hear news of a Doors reunion.

    Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray, chairs of their chambers’ budget committees, did the deal, and – get this – each of them gave up stuff they really wanted in order to make it happen. This is called “compromise,” a word that all too often seems to have been excised from Capitol Hill dictionaries. There’s a chance, of course, that the usual absolutists will scuttle this deal when it comes time to vote (in the House, this week), but let’s at least savor the moment – and list the political factors that made it possible.

    The budget deal is very modest in scope; in Ryan’s words, it’s designed to “get our government functioning at its very basic levels.” To do that, he squelched his desire to enact deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Murray did the same on the Democratic side; she threw in the towel on closing a slew of corporate tax loopholes, and extending jobless benefits for one million long-term unemployed. As she said last night, “We’ve made compromises and worked together to get something done.”

    The result is a pact that slightly raises domestic and military spending for the next two years – above the strict levels set by the sequester – and pays for much of it with $65 billion cadged elsewhere (higher fees for airline travelers, cuts in the federal money that goes into government workers’ and military pensions). But let’s not get lost in the policy weeds. Those are less interesting than the reasons why the pact happened – and why it has a pretty decent shot of being ratified by the rank and file.

    Put simply, Democrats have an interest in loosening the sequester straitjacket and getting more spending flexibility. And Republicans have an abiding interest in demonstrating that they can actually govern responsibly; after the autumn shutdown disaster, which took an estimated $24 billion out of the economy, they’d prefer to avoid another ginned-up crisis in a midterm election year. The government runs out of funding on Jan. 15, and House GOP leaders don’t want to risk another tea-party farce that would repulse the electorate all over again. Which is why John Boehner has been lauding the Ryan-Murray deal as “a positive step forward.”

    Plus, defense hawks are motivated to OK the deal because it funds the military at levels higher than the squester. Plus, if Republicans OK the deal, they can take the budget stuff off the table and out of the news cycle, thereby keeping the public’s focus on Obamacare. (Their assumption is that Obamacare will continue to be a Democratic albatross.) All of which means, of course, that the budget deal is the result of fortuitous political calculations, not Kumbaya.

    The big question now is whether peace will be fleeting. The usual suspects on the rabid right – Heritage Action, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity – were denouncing the deal even before the announcement of the deal. (Which brings to mind the old Groucho Marx song, “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”) The Koch front group urged a No vote, and warned lawmakers that it “will include this vote in our congressional scorecard,” which means that anyone who says Yes to compromise faces the possibility of a Koch-funded primary challenger.

    On the Democratic side, some liberals are ticked off that the deal won’t extend benefits for the long-term unemployed (Nancy Pelosi says the exclusion is “absolutely unconscionable”), and others are upset that the deal won’t close corporate tax loopholes. But, as always, the ire on the right is more vocal and more organized – and potentially more pivotal in the Republican House. It appears that Boehner will (again) need to rely on Democratic votes to get the deal passed. And the clock is already ticking, toward year-end adjournment on Friday.

    So there’s little margin for error. Still, it’s swell to see that, every once in a while, partisans can still play nice.  And maybe they can sustain that spirit until March – when it will be time to raise the debt ceiling again!

    Yeah. I’m groaning, too.Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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