By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 1:10 AM
After a campaign notable for invective and negativity, a modicum of civility has broken out in Washington this week. Is it a harbinger of genuine bipartisan cooperation ahead or an illusory moment before a quick return to partisan combat in the capital?
Tuesday's meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders produced no breakthroughs on the big issues that must be dealt with during the lame-duck session. But by all accounts, it was at least a polite discussion of the two sides' differences as well as a recognition of their shared responsibilities to govern, rather than another empty episode of partisan point scoring.
Wednesday's public meeting of the president's deficit commission was equally civilized, despite the policy differences that remain among the members. It seems clear that close interaction over a period of months produced a mutual respect that transcends the ideological gulf that still separates the members.
That's hardly enough to declare that a new era of cooperation has arrived. Both sides are now in a period of testing - probing one another for signs of cooperativeness and compromise while trying to evaluate the limits of public opinion and voters' patience for renewed partisan warfare. Which is why the meeting on Tuesday and the participants' reviews of it afterward were done with a minimum of demands or accusations.
The philosophical differences between Obama and the Republicans are too large and too deeply held to suggest any quick change in the climate that existed during the past two years. Whether the issue is taxes, spending, health care or entitlements, the two sides remain miles apart. Still, the November election has tempered Washington, at least in the short term.
"There's no question that tonally things have changed," said Pete Wehner, a Bush administration official now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Those are inevitable after elections. Elections arouse partisan passions, and then they die down. That is good."
On some issues, particularly those on the agenda for the lame-duck session, Republicans and Democrats have little choice but to find a solution. The Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year, and nobody favors that. Both sides want to find a way to preserve some or all of them, permanently or temporarily. Similarly, compromise is likely on extending unemployment benefits, if only because Republicans can't afford to look like they favor tax cuts for the wealthy while denying jobless workers unemployment compensation.
After Tuesday's meeting at the White House, there is greater optimism for a possible deal on these issues during the lame duck session, along with ratification of the New START pact.
But William Galston of the Brookings Institution cautions that successful cooperation on the pressing issues of the lame-duck session will not necessarily lead to continued bipartisanship when the new 112th Congress convenes in January. Instead, he said, a period of disagreement is likely, even inevitable.
"After things that have to get done get done, the psychology in the short term will revert to one of confrontation," he said.
Wehner, too, expressed skepticism - which is widely shared - that civility will lead to real cooperation. "I view most of what happens between now and 2012 as an undercard, or shadow boxing, to the main event in 2012," he said.
The reasons have much to do with the makeup of the new Republican majority in the House and the tea party voters who were instrumental in creating it. However mindful Republican leaders are of the dangers of overplaying their hand, they know they must try to live up to their promises to cut government spending and repeal the new health-care law.
Those partisan lines are already clear in the initial reactions to the deficit commission recommendations, which include reforming the tax code and raising some taxes, raising the retirement age and cutting spending.
Co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have taken on one of the most difficult jobs in Washington and have, in their own estimation, forced the issue of the deficit onto the public agenda in ways that can't be ignored. But they need 14 votes on the 18-member commission to issue their plan as an official recommendation, and they have been struggling to get anywhere close to that number.
The greatest resistance is among the elected officials on the panel, suggesting that on fiscal issues there is, today at least, little grounds for or desire for compromise.
Galston predicts two phases in the battles between the White House and congressional Republicans. The first will come next year in the form of partisan clashes, as Republicans challenge Obama on the budget, taxes and health care, followed later by a period of greater bipartisan cooperation.
What would cause the shift? Public opinion. There is considerable evidence that, despite the partisanship of the recent election, a majority of Americans still want to see the two parties work together. If confrontation leads to stalemate, as it did in 1995, then both parties will be carefully watching the public reaction. Whoever is judged to be losing is likely to shift course and seek compromise.
That, however, may be an optimistic view. Partisanship and polarization are greater today than they were in the mid-1990s, and there appears to be a bigger ideological gap between Obama and congressional Republicans than there was between President Bill Clinton and the Republicans then. At the same time, activists in both parties see 2010 as mere prelude to a more consequential election in 2012.
Given that reality, the civility on display this week may be welcomed by many Americans. But it will take much more effort on the part of both sides to find common ground on the issues that still divide them.