December 17, 2013
Inside this building, something actually got done today. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Inside this building, something actually got done today. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

So the Senate just voted by a solid margin of 67-33 to proceed to a final vote on the budget deal that replaces part of the sequester with higher spending levels, pretty much ensuring its passage. This comes after House Republicans voted in surprisingly large numbers for the deal.

That such a small deal is being hailed as a sign of a resurgence of functionality in Congress is testament to how low expectations for Congress had fallen. But this is still a bit of a breakthrough. As William Hoagland put it: “in the nearly 40  year history of the Budget Act there has never been a conference agreement on a  budget outline when the House was controlled by Republicans and the Senate  controlled by Democrats.”

Twelve Senate Republicans broke with their party to support the agreement. While the vast majority of the Senate GOP conference still voted against the deal, the White House’s hope has long been that compromise-minded Senators would break with the leadership and the right, and after a lot of drama, that’s basically what happened here.

Does this augur anything broader about the chances of getting Obama’s agenda through Congress? Ezra Klein suggested the other day that Congress remains a “closed mechanism” for the President. Is there any reason to revise this view?

Today’s vote is a reminder that there is probably a majority in both chambers that is prepared to cooperate, compromise, and make concessions to reach common solutions to the problems facing the country. Indeed, there may well be majority support in both chambers behind a bigger budget deal combining new taxes and spending cuts; behind immigration reform; behind an extension in unemployment benefits; and possibly even behind infrastructure spending to boost the economy. But as Jonathan Chait suggested the other day, the existence of this majority has largely been obscured by a “legislative cartel” created by the House GOP leadership’s frequent refusal to allow a vote on measures that a majority of House Members might support.

In one of the most telling charts ever compiled by the Cook Political Report, you can see that a majority of House Republicans voted against at least three of five measures sought by the leadership under political duress for the GOP, such as the fiscal cliff deal; the Violence Against Women Act; and aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.  All of those things passed the House with some Republican support, but it was only after the specter of true political disaster forced GOP leaders to allow a vote on them.

By contrast, GOP leaders engineered the vote for the budget deal, specifically because they decided in advance that more governing chaos would damage the party heading into 2014. That decision led to a big bloc of House Republicans coming along, and suddenly the outpouring of rage on the right  seemed reduced to a non-factor. And over in the Senate, a big majority of Republicans opposed the deal, but GOP Senate leaders didn’t seriously make any kind of stand against it (Mitch McConnell, too, had vowed not to let any more chaos governing foul up the GOP’s chances in 2014), and a dozen peeled off and joined Dems.

In this context, today’s vote is a reminder of the existence of a cooperative governing majority in both chambers of Congress — but also that truly extraordinary political circumstances are required to induce Republicans to lift their blockade on allowing that majority to work its will.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.