Washington witnessed a Christmas miracle last week: House adoption of a budget compromise worked out by House-Senate negotiators after Speaker John Boehner bluntly told recalcitrant members of his caucus to toe the line or lose all credibility.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 moved on to the Senate where Democrats already have said they could live with the two-year deal that caps 2014 spending at $1.012 trillion, up from $967 billion, and 2015 spending at $1.014 trillion, up from $995 billion, and replaces the sequester with more targeted spending cuts.
Passage is being hailed as action to avert another government shutdown Jan. 15 but Congress actually has to appropriate the money in an omnibus bill before it's a done deal and the country has its first budget since 2009.
The 332-94 vote left only 62 hard-line conservative Republicans and 32 Democrats in opposition -- the GOPers because it did not reduce the deficit enough and the Dems because the spending plan did not renew extended unemployment benefits set to expire three days after Christmas. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said extending unemployment benefits would be his chamber's first order of business in January.
"In a divided government you don't get everything you want but I think this bill is a step in the right direction," the chief House budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told his unhappy cohorts. Later, Ryan told reporters he was "surprised" by the vote margin for the plan he worked out with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in two months of talks.
The White House called the deal "a positive step forward for the nation and our economy."
Boehner said in a pre-vote pep talk:
"If you're for reducing the budget deficit, then you should be voting for this bill. If you're for cutting the size of government, you should you be supporting this budget. If you're for preventing tax increases, you should be voting for this budget. If you're for entitlement reform, you ought to be voting for this budget. These are the things I came here to do, and this budget does them."
Despite Boehner's new-found control of the extreme right, fiscal brinksmanship is not just a bad memory: The debt ceiling will come up next year, perhaps as early as March, meaning the whole debate about whether the United States should meet its obligations could play havoc with stock and bond markets again unless Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can convince Tea Partiers the near-constant crisis management is detrimental to long-term Republican goals.
Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans had learned valuable lessons during the 16-day government shutdown in October that cost the government $2 billion and the economy an estimated $24 billion -- the latter about the same it would cost to renew the extended unemployment benefits.
"I feel like we're in a better place," Boehner said.
The deal, which reverses $63 billion in automatic sequestration cuts and slightly increases government spending, falls far short of the grand bargain that would have included overhaul of the tax structure sought by President Obama. The accord reduces the deficit by $23 billion and includes no tax increases although it does include $13.6 billion in new or increased fees, reduces pension benefits for uninjured military personnel by $12 billion and extends $28 billion in Medicare cuts but prevents a cut in pay for doctors treating Medicare recipients.
"This bill does not include everything the president called for. But it marks an important moment of bipartisan cooperation and shows Washington can and should stop governing by crisis and both sides can work together to get things done," the White House said in a statement.
"While this legislation falls well short of what is necessary to adequately address our burdensome national debt and the many other fiscal challenges facing the country, it does represent a step in the right direction and proves that bipartisan compromise is still possible in Washington," Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of the non-partisan Campaign to Fix the Debt, said in a news release. "We hope that this bill's passage will lead to further bipartisan cooperation that goes much further in confronting the real long-term drivers of our debt."
The conservative Heritage Foundation sharply criticized the deal.
Tea Party darling and former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said in a pre-vote Heritage blog post the measure "breaks important promises congressional leaders have made to each other and the American people to cut spending and taxes. It is essentially a tax-and-spend plan but is being hailed by the political and media establishment as a reasonable and modest accomplishment because it promises to do better in the future. ...
"In their defense, Republicans are in a tough spot. They have two bad options. They can continue to capitulate and go along with the always-happy-to-tax-and-spend liberals, or they can take a stand for the good of the country and watch the Democrats close the government, change the rules or issue an executive order -- and then listen to liberals and the media blame it all on Republicans. It's a pattern that's been developing for a long time. The Democrats know the Republicans are afraid to take a stand, so they keep pushing the 'compromises' further to the left."
DeMint hailed the now-dead sequestration as "the first real commitment by Congress in a long time to slow the growth of government over a 10-year budget window" but criticized it as a spending plan since it allowed for increases in outlays.
He criticized the budget deal for imposing what he characterized as "price controls" on Medicare, increasing user fees that he said are taxes by another name, using "gimmicks" for savings, funding the Affordable Care Act and failing to pay down the debt, which stands at more than $17.2 trillion.
The budget bill may not have clear sailing in the week ahead in the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible 2016 presidential contender already has condemned it as "irresponsible." Rubio stayed virtually silent during the October blowup, leaving it to a more heavy-handed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who mini-filibustered a deal ending the crisis.