It’s a deal! (US budget edition)

The House of Representatives in the United States this morning did that rare thing and approved a bipartisan budget agreement. Based on a deal reached by negotiators from both parties earlier this week, the legislation passed 332 to 94, with majority support from both Democrats (163-32) and Republicans (169-62). There is no doubt that the Senate will concur.

The actual agreement is fairly limited. Most of the so-called “sequester” cuts – implemented last March and largely untouched since then – will remain in place, but $63 billion worth of expenditure will be reinstated, to be paid for by cuts in other areas and increases in some government fees. About $22 billion will also be applied to deficit reduction.

What matters is the significance of the two sides being able to reach an agreement. Opinions differ, however, on what this means for the future.

On one view, the deal marks the willingness of the Republican leadership to break with the party’s extremist wing, which may open greater possibilities for constructive compromise in the future. The Reuters report is headlined with “could usher in new era of cooperation.” The Los Angeles Times report describes it as a victory for Republican speaker John Boehner, “who appears to have regained momentary control over his rebellious majority.”

Certainly Boehner’s rhetoric, unlike much of his behavior in the last couple of years, suggests a man who is fed up with kow-towing to a minority faction and now thinks he has the support to stand up to them. Referring to conservative lobby groups that opposed the budget deal, he said yesterday “Frankly 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 they’ve lost all credibility.”

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post remarks that Boehner is “cutting the Tea Party loose in a very public and dramatic way. If there aren’t serious repercussions within his caucus, won’t that suggest that the party’s right flank has been very badly weakened in ways that should have real ramifications going forward?”

Against that relatively optimistic view, however, should be set the fact that if it took this long to get such a small measure of agreement, the two sides must still be a long way apart. Jon Chait at New York magazine says that “since the savings they agreed upon were, by definition, the most agreeable cuts, any future deals will become much harder. The low-hanging fruit is all gone.”

He describes this week’s deal as “a small salvage operation for a grand failure of governance and political strategy stretching over three years.”

The budget agreement avoids the risk of another government shutdown for another year, but it contains no provision for an increase in the debt ceiling: a vote on that will still have to be held in February. If it’s allowed to go through with little fanfare, it will suggest that the Republican Party really has learned some lessons and the power of the extremists is on the wane.

But if the “tea party” and its allies are still determined to make trouble, there are plenty of opportunities left.

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