Politics & Policy
Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray give a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, on Dec. 10
On Tuesday night, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington announced they had agreed on a budget deal that would ease automatic sequestration cuts by about $60 billion over the next two years and pay for this new spending by raising airline ticket fees, cutting federal pensions and extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare. On the one hand, this is a minor miracle because it breaks the pattern of Congress operating only under crisis conditions that have hurt economic confidence and caused a shutdown. Last week, I explained why passing even a modest deal like this one was very good news. Nickel version: it provides modest stimulus, avoids another shutdown, and makes another default scare less likely.
On the other hand, this deal could easily fall prey to the same forces that wrecked earlier agreements: hardline conservatives. The Ryan-Murray deal would raise 2014 spending to $1.012 trillion, instead of $967 billion. It also includes $23 billion in additional deficit reduction meant as a sop to hardliners, although this doesn’t appear to be doing the trick. The conservative pressure group Heritage Action called the agreement “a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction.” Mark them down as a “no.” And because the Ryan-Murray deal is an ordinary bill, and not a special resolution, it’s subject to a filibuster. So Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may already be warming up his vocal chords.
The deal could also run into problems with liberals upset that it doesn’t extend the federal unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people that are due to expire on Dec. 28.
Still, leaders in both parties went to great lengths to avoid past problems and ensure that any deal had the best chance of passage. It’s no accident that Ryan, a conservative stalwart, is leading the charge for Republicans instead of John Boehner or that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have stayed in the background.
But the real test now is whether even a modest compromise can survive the congressional gauntlet and make it to the president’s desk. One way to think about Congress and the budget deal is like a drug addict who’s just finished a stint in rehab. In the private, cloistered world of the rehab facility, the patient has managed to straighten himself out and drop his bad habits. He’s looking a lot better. Now, he must venture forth into the world and test his newfound sobriety. He’ll either steer a healthier course and start function like he should or go the full Lohan and relapse into the same old damaging habits. We’ll know by Christmas.