Why Congress had to go small in pursuit of a budget deal

December 9, 2013

Congressional budget negotiators are on the verge of a deal. Just don't call it a grand bargain, a sweeping agreement or a landmark accord.

The Post's Lori Montgomery reports that "the emerging agreement amounts to little more than a cease-fire. Republicans and Democrats are abandoning their debt-reduction goals, laying down arms and, for the moment, trying to avoid another economy-damaging standoff."

In other words, congressional leaders are going small. Given what's transpired in Congress during the last couple of years in the budget debate, it's not difficult to see why a broader arrangement simply wasn't in the cards.

The deal wouldn't reform entitlements like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is leading the budget negotiations for House Republicans, has long advocated. Nor would it address tax loopholes like Democrats have demanded. And what about major debt reduction? Nope.

What it would do, Montgomery reports, is avoid the kind of fiscal standoff that has become the calling card of Capitol Hill as budget deadlines have neared and lawmakers have struggled to hash out stopgap agreements at the eleventh hour.

The goal of simply averting another government shutdown may seem like a low bar — but only before considering how much relations have deteriorated between Democrats and Republicans and how little common ground there is for a deal right now.

Given the consistent strife in Congress, the significance of what looks to be a nearly completed agreement between Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), shouldn't be undersold. And it's not as if this latest round of negotiations ever realistically promised to produce something monumental. As Montgomery reports, Ryan signaled back in October that a sweeping bargain likely wasn't on the horizon.

Still, the fact that they are going to fall well short of anything resembling a major deal to resolve the biggest fiscal issues of the day speaks to how little is possible in a deeply polarized Congress these days and how dramatically expectations have fallen in recent years.

It wasn't that long ago that President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) were in pursuit of a "grand bargain." But talks fell apart in 2011. From there, strained negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on fiscal matters started feeling like the norm.

It took a last-minute deal struck by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Biden to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" at the end of last year. Just months later, the federal government was forced to shut down after Congress failed to reach a new stopgap budget agreement. Lawmakers picked up the pieces with another 11th-hour deal and kicked the can down the road yet again.

With a modest deal in sight now, Congress — if negotiators can dot the i's, cross the t's, and convince both the Democratic Senate and Republican House to jump aboard — may just avoid another dramatic budget fight filled with uncertainty that both political parties seem keen on avoiding.

But this isn't the "grand bargain" both sides once envisioned. And the reality is that there's little reason to believe one is possible any time soon.

Fixbits: 

Obama pegged the odds of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran at no more than 50-50.

Obama and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton plan to attend memorial services for former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie is mulling a challenge to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) suggested he won't run for public office again.

E.W. Jackson, the failed GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in Virginia, is starting a PAC.

Senate Majority PAC has already spent more than $1 million to help Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that extending long-term unemployment benefits hurts the unemployed.

Paul also called public life an "ordeal."

Must-reads: 

"Three Senators Try to Hold Off G.O.P. in South" — Campbell Robertson and Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times

"Va. Republicans gather to chart course for coming elections" — Laura Vozzella, Washington Post

"Was Hillary Clinton a Good Secretary of State?" — Susan B. Glasser, Politico magazine

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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