Despite apparent budget deal, congressional dysfunction isn’t ending anytime soon

October 16, 2013

Washington, once again, has stepped back from the brink. But does the rout of tea party Republicans suggest an end to the dysfunctional cycle in which governing consists of lurching from crisis to crisis?

Don’t count on it.

President Obama and the Democrats have frequently invoked a favorite metaphor — “break the fever” — to describe how determined they were to end the familiar pattern that has brought the government close to disaster at least four times in the past three years.

In the latest round, they won on the big point of contention. The deal reached Wednesday leaves the health-care law intact.

But all the players will be right back in the same spots next January, when a new spending bill will be necessary to keep the government open. And in February, when there will be another deadline to lift the debt ceiling.

Senate leaders announced a budget compromise Wednesday that will raise the debt ceiling and re-open the government. In Play's Chris Cillizza breaks down which political players came out of the deal on top and which ones did not. (The Washington Post)

“It was really important to finally create this firebreak,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said of the Democrats’ strategy to stand firm. “Does that mean that the tea party caucus won’t renew these threats in January and February? We won’t really know.”

Few expect the go-for-broke tea party forces to come away chastened — or for the GOP’s establishment, distressed by the party’s rock-bottom standing in the polls, to be able to exert greater leverage over them.

“I don’t see anything in the outcome of this that leads me to believe we’re going to have a big change in the modus operandi of Washington,” said Vin Weber, a Republican lobbyist and former congressman from Minnesota, who himself was a member of his party’s insurgent wing two decades ago. “I’d like to, but I don’t.”

The White House was also lowering expectations.

Officials there say they do not expect Republicans to take a more conciliatory approach on, for instance, immigration reform. And while the GOP has been defeated in its efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, it is likely to focus its fire on the technical problems that have accompanied the launch of the law.

“I think it’s fair to say that the experience that we’ve all had demonstrates the kind of hyper-partisanship that was the problem in the past, especially in one House, continues to be a challenge,” presidential press secretary Jay Carney said in his briefing. “And that when pursued at the expense of good governance and the American people, it does harm to our economy and causes dysfunction here in Washington.”

But others argue that something has to give.

“For the party, this is a moment of self evaluation, we are going to assess how we got here,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “If we continue down this path, we are really going to hurt the Republican Party long term.”

“This package is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach,” Graham said of the deal that was struck to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling. “But live and learn, we’ll be doing this in a couple months.”

Leaders of both parties will be closely watching a number of developments over the coming months.

One question is whether the experience has undermined the standing — or the strategy — of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

There was a note of truculence in Boehner’s statement Wednesday acknowledging that his side had lost this round.

“Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s health-care law will continue,” Boehner said. “We will rely on aggressive oversight that highlights the law’s massive flaws and smart, targeted strikes that split the legislative coalition the president has relied upon to force his health-care law on the American people.”

But there was also a glimmer of hope for things to return to the process of legislative give and take that used to be normal on Capitol Hill.

For the first time since 2009, House and Senate negotiators are expected to meet soon in a conference committee on the budget.

Though both houses passed their versions of the fiscal 2014 budget in March, Republicans had refused to proceed to the next step in the process.

However, Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), have for six months been holding informal meetings every two or three weeks, either by telephone or in person in her hideaway just off the Senate floor.

Still unknown is whether the 2014 election season will heighten partisan tensions, or create a new imperative for cooperation.

The latter is what happened in the aftermath of the government shutdowns of 1995 and early 1996. When polls showed House Republicans in danger of losing their majority, they switched gears and began working with President Clinton to pass welfare reform and other measures.

But that was 18 years ago. The terrain has shifted since then, with the rise of the tea party and an electoral map where Republican incumbents believe they are more likely to be unseated by a primary challenger from the right than a Democrat in a general election.

“I don’t think this debacle is going to change their game plan,” said New York Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Democrats have come out of the shutdown with an advantage in the polls, which may have set back the GOP’s hopes of winning a majority in the Senate. And Democrats say it has even brightened their prospects of picking up the 17 seats they need to take back the House, despite the formidable advantages the Republicans gained through redistricting.

It has already brightened the Democrats’ recruiting efforts, said Israel. At least six promising prospects who had previously ruled out running next year are reconsidering, he added.

One of them, Omaha city councilman Pete Festersen, announced on Monday that he will challenge Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). And Democrats hope Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial office, will soon declare that she will run to replace retiring Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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