While budget deal avoids big issues, just both sides talking is a feat

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 13, 2013 

— Be wary of all the Washington-speak about a new spirit of bipartisanship suddenly gripping Congress. It’s not.

Sure, the House of Representatives peacefully passed a budget plan Thursday night with strong support from members of both parties. But the lingering tension is quickly obvious.

The Senate will return Sunday still mired in a fight over presidential nominations for government positions. This ugly war meant all-night sessions Wednesday and Thursday, highlighted by some bitter partisan sniping.

On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to start considering the budget agreement. While passage is expected, so are Republican attempts at lengthy debate and delay. Republicans are upset that the plan doesn’t address long-term deficit issues – hardly a surprise, since most other major legislation remains stuck.

Then there’s overhauling immigration, setting long-term farm policy and extending long-term unemployment benefits set to expire three days after Christmas: The House formally ended its 2013 session without settling any of those problems.

Even the highly touted budget deal wasn’t all that big a deal, lawmakers conceded. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California reluctantly voted yes, but she called the agreement “a draw as small as it could possibly be.”

It adds $63 billion in spending during this fiscal year and fiscal 2015, easing the automatic across-the-board spending cuts, or sequester. The deal would raise $85 billion from revenues and other measures over the next 10 years, but it’s likely to still increase the federal deficit, if only slightly, this year and next.

This is hardly the grand bargain that’s eluded Washington for years, much less a plan to make a serious dent in the government’s $17.2 trillion debt; more just a flag of truce.

“The legislation will not significantly improve the long-term fiscal situation, and would leave debt on an upward path,” said an analysis from the nonpartisan, nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Though this bill could be a steppingstone for further reforms, much more will have to be done in order to put the budget on a sustainable path.”

Make no mistake, signs did emerge suggesting that Republicans and Democrats were putting aside years of anger.

“This doesn’t heal our attempt to deal with all of the issues, but this is all one step at a time,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

Congressional observers were heartened by the sudden willingness of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to blast conservative interest groups. Boehner was widely criticized earlier this year for being too acquiescent to their demands to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and to hold out for drastic spending cuts that had little chance of winning approval in the Democratic-run Senate.

“I think they’re misleading their followers. I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said.

His comments drew reaction from some of those groups. But a few hours after he spoke, 169 of the House’s 232 Republicans joined 163 of the 201 Democrats to approve the budget deal.

Attention now turns to the Senate, where the two parties have been dueling ferociously since last month’s Democratic leadership decision to invoke the “nuclear option”: Fifty-one votes, rather than the more difficult and nomination-killing hurdle of 60, are now needed to limit debate on most presidential nominees.

As a result, votes and debate on a string of those nominees have dominated this week. Angry Republicans generally insist on using all the time allotted, forcing two round-the-clock sessions.

Any notion that bipartisanship was in the Capitol air was quickly dispelled Thursday night. Three hours after the House’s budget vote, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., lamented to his Senate colleagues that the rule change was having a devastating effect.

“It’s becoming clear to our colleagues that actions that have been taking place in recent days have altered the very nature of the Senate,” he said in a floor speech. They “have eroded the collegiality that makes this body work on a daily basis.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blamed Republicans. “What they’re doing in the last few days is a picture of why we had to change the rules,” he said. “Nothing but obstruction in big capital letters.”

The big test of the meaning of the enmity produced by the new rules should become apparent early next week. While the budget deal is widely expected to pass, opponents could tie it in procedural knots for days. They’re ready with their arguments, citing a common theme: “The small sequester spending cuts were not nearly enough to address our deficit problem,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite and possible 2016 presidential candidate.

The Senate also plans to consider a defense policy bill, probably Wednesday. That measure traditionally gets bipartisan support, and it appears likely to do so again.

Most everything else will be pushed into 2014, creating additional tension in an election year when Republicans need a net gain of just six seats to win control of the Senate. Most analysts think the House will be able to retain its Republican majority.

The turmoil is surfacing already. Democrats are eager to extend emergency jobless benefits; Republicans are balking. Republicans are firm in their resolve that major tax increases are not up for discussion in a budget deal; Democrats insist on some kind of big revenue-raisers.

Lawmakers hoped this week that a new era of calm has dawned, but their confidence was low.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was explaining efforts to find common ground on immigration. He listed all the points of contention, and the points of agreement. Asked whether he was optimistic, he just offered a big smile.

“Every sunrise gives me new hope,” he said.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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