By the standards of hyper-partisan Washington, the sight of nine Republican senators joining with the Democratic majority to pass a budget this week was astonishing, making up for the fact that the agreement itself is one of the least ambitious spending plans in the country’s history.
Patty Murray, the Democratic head of the Senate Budget Committee, and Paul Ryan, her Republican counterpart in the House of Representatives, have been praised for a budget compromise that has shortcomings but is seen as “something is better than nothing.”
The fiscal plan – which the House endorsed 332 to 94 last week – is the first passed by a divided Congress since 1986 and the first proper budget to pass Congress since before the Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, suggesting an end to constant threat of a government shutdown.
Non-partisan economic authorities welcomed the agreement, which President Barack Obama has promised to sign. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told reporters Thursday that it was “nice” to see lawmakers working together instead of complicating the Fed’s efforts to stimulate the recovery by undermining consumer and business confidence. Moody’s Investors Service, an agency that measures the creditworthiness of debtors, called the compromise a “positive development.”
But Washington’s budget peace is a shaky one and the obstructionists in the Republican Party haven’t gone away. Future conflict is assured, perhaps as soon as mid-January, the deadline for appropriators in the House and Senate to allocate federal funding without triggering another government shutdown. In early February, the Treasury Department will again come up against its borrowing authority, another early 2014 test of Congress’s newfound willingness to work together.
Of the nine Republican senators who endorsed the Murray-Ryan proposal, only one – Susan Collins of Maine – is facing an election. The others are not up for re-election in the November midterms, either because of Senate’s staggered voting cycle or, in the case of Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, retirement.
The vote count shows that the hardline element in the Republican Party that identifies with the Tea Party movement still holds considerable sway, even though Mr. Ryan and other Republican House leaders struck an agreement with Ms. Murray over the objection of conservative pressure groups.
Notably, senior Republican leaders opposed the budget – a shift from previous fiscal confrontations, which were resolved at the 11th hour by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell working out a compromise with either the White House or his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid.
This time Mr. McConnell was absent from the negotiations. He is one eight sitting Republican senators who not only face re-election next year, but also challenges for their party’s nomination from Tea Party upstarts.
For a politicians such as Ms. Collins, the Tea Party isn’t an issue. Her political image is that of pragmatist and she represents a state that twice voted for Mr. Obama. She can side with Democrats without fear of reprisal.
Mr. McConnell, on the other hand, has suffered for it in his home state of Kentucky, where some polls suggest he is as unpopular as the President. His opponent for the Republican nomination, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, is mounting a surprisingly strong challenge by criticizing the Republican establishment. Mr. Bevin told the Hill newspaper this week that House Speaker John Boehner’s attack on conservative groups two weeks ago showed “arrogance” and “smugness.” He said Republicans in Washington should refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless they extract “significant concessions” from the other side.