Budget Deal Won’t Restore Bipartisanship in Washington
Don’t read too much into the congressional compromise on the budget. Though the deal was accompanied by a rare outbreak of bipartisanship, that cooperation won’t last.
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Liberals and conservatives in Congress, including tea party and mainstream Republicans, will disagree more than they concur in coming months. Fundamental philosophical differences will remain and familiar disputes will reemerge, particularly as November’s midterm elections get closer.
The ideological gulf will be on full display soon after the start of the new year, when lawmakers return to Washington to debate extending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million out-of-work Americans.
Some economists contend that the 7% jobless rate is argument enough to keep checks flowing to the long-term unemployed. Yet the extension wasn’t a big part of the negotiations between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA).
It wasn’t included because the $25-billion cost would have wiped out the $22 billion in deficit reduction in the agreement. Ryan needed to claim there was deficit reduction in the deal to make it work, even with mainstream Republicans who favored reaching a compromise.
Democrats say they expect that the benefits, which expire at the end of the year, will be restored retroactively. Not so fast, say Republicans. The GOP wants spending cuts to offset the unemployment checks, but Capitol Hill negotiators scraped the bottom of the barrel already on that front when they raised fees on airline passengers and required new government hires to pay 1.3% more toward their pensions than those already working for Uncle Sam.
There is little appetite on the Republican side of the aisle for additional revenue-raising steps, such as tightening tax breaks for corporate jets and other measures suggested by Democrats.
So barring the emergence of a yet-to-be-seen spending or revenue offset, the best chance for an unemployment deal may be a lot of persuasion and a bit of guilt. Some clergy, labor and retail groups already are jittery. They’ll press lawmakers on the issue while they’re in their home districts over the Christmas holiday.
Advocates for extending jobless benefits contend that most of the money from unemployment checks gets pumped right back into the economy. Some Republicans will find that argument difficult to oppose in an election year.
Success or gridlock is wholly in the hands of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). After more than two years of surrendering to the will of the tea party, Boehner has cut the cord, finally taking on the obstructionists in his party who seem to dig in at every turn. Boehner can get anything through the House that has Democratic support, but he has to be willing to take on the tea party, as he did with this month’s budget deal.
Don’t bet that he’ll keep doing that. He’s still fighting for his political life and is surrounded by committee chairmen who fear primary challenges from tea party-backed candidates. By some accounts, the tea party’s power is waning. But the resolve of its followers, in Congress and in parts of the nation, is unbending.
Boehner can’t afford to ignore them completely, at least until the 2014 elections play out and he can gauge how much attention he must pay to them and, conversely, how much he can cooperate with the other party in Congress.