Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Analysis: For once, gridlock takes a seat

WASHINGTON — Sit down, gridlock.

After years on the bench, compromise is taking a turn in Congress, however briefly, in the form of a budget deal that is modest in size yet marks a major step away from brinkmanship.

It’s a different model for America’s divided government, nothing like the version pressed by the tea party adherents who stormed to power in the House three years ago. They have maneuvered their own Republican Party from showdown to self-defeating shutdown, with dismal approval ratings to show for it

“We understand in this divided government we’re not going to get everything we want,” Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said Wednesday. He was referring to himself and rank-and-file Republican lawmakers after pitching the plan to them the day after he’d announced it alongside Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.

“By having a budget agreement that does not raise taxes, that does reduce the deficit and produces some certainty and prevents government shutdowns we think is a good agreement.”

The mood inside the closed-door meeting was said to be positive — nary a boast about defunding “Obamacare,” the objective that motivated Republicans to send the government into a partial shutdown in October. “Not even mentioned,” said Rep. Howard ‘Buck” McKeon of California.

Nor was there talk of any other national cataclysm, real or imagined, hovering in the background.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the negotiations shared a goal of easing the across-the-board spending cuts known in Washington-speak as a sequester, and of returning Congress to a state in which the Appropriations Committees would be able to write and pass routine bills covering each agency, rather than lumping them all into one sure-to-be-disputed bill.

“The Constitution says that the legislative branch should exercise the power of the purse,” Ryan said Tuesday evening, standing next to Murray, the Democratic negotiator from Washington state. “We want to reclaim that from the administration instead of having all of these” stopgap bills.

The two parties also share a recognition that a deal needed to come together before the House adjourned for the year this week. That’s because the next round of across-the-board cuts are due to kick in by mid-January.

Yet there was no threat of a government shutdown or a default, no “fiscal cliff” approaching, and no recession recovery-damaging increase in payroll taxes looming, as was the case two Christmases ago.

House Speaker John Boehner was feisty, two months after being steamrolled by outside groups like Heritage Action, Club for Growth and their allies who swore off compromise in the run-up to the fall shutdown. The Ohio Republican was primed to pounce, and surprisingly, neither President Barack Obama nor congressional Democrats were his quarry.

“You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” he asked a reporter inquiring about opposition to the new budget deal. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.”

The shutdown ended in abject defeat for Republicans, who ultimately voted to reopen the government without getting a single concession in return and agreed in added humiliation to raise the federal debt limit.

This time, mindful of his troops’ inclinations, Boehner volunteered that the 10-year deal was modest, and neither he nor Ryan mentioned that it will cause deficits to rise in the current year and each of the next two.

Modest, but not one-sided.

Across-the-board spending cuts would be eased on both military and domestic programs.

“The Democrats wanted the sequester to be completely lifted, completely gone. We didn’t agree with that,” Ryan said, claiming one accomplishment for the GOP.

Democrat Murray conceded she was “disappointed that we weren’t able to close even a single corporate tax loophole,” another concession to the GOP.

On the other hand, she said, “I know many Republicans had hoped this would be an opportunity to make some of the kinds of changes to Medicare and Social Security they’ve advocated for.”

That didn’t happen, either.

Republicans didn’t gloat about one accomplishment: They managed to divide Obama from House Democrats with the deal. The White House embraced it, while many lawmakers in his party expressed deep disappointment that it wouldn’t extend a program of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless.

Still, Murray said she hoped the same bipartisan cooperation might extend to other issues.

If so, it’s unlikely to be soon, with Senate Republicans furious that Democrats unilaterally changed procedures to make it easier to confirm presidential nominees.

Inside the budget agreement, which is still just a proposal, the savings would come from items that had been under discussion in previous rounds of budget negotiations that never came to fruition. Among them were increases in the security fee paid by airline travelers and the money that corporations pay to the federal agency that guarantees pensions.

Military retirees under the age of 62 will pay a price, too, in the form of smaller-than-projected annual cost-of-living increases in pensions.

One of the most controversial items wasn’t settled until the very end, according to officials.

A requirement for civilian federal workers to pay a greater share for their pensions was limited to future workers, rather than those already on the job as the GOP had hoped.

On that point, Democrats prevailed, and the bill’s overall deficit reduction was shaved from $26 billion over a decade to $23 billion.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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