On Tuesday night, Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington announced they had agreed on a budget deal that would ease automatic sequestration cuts by about $60 billion over the next two years, paying for this new spending by raising airline ticket fees, cutting federal pensions, and extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare.
On one hand, this is a minor miracle because it breaks the pattern by which Congress operates only under crisis conditions that have hurt economic confidence and caused a shutdown. Last week, I explained why passing even a modest deal such as this one is very good news. Nickel version: It provides modest stimulus, avoids another shutdown, and makes another default scare less likely.
On the other hand, this deal could easily fall prey to the same forces that wrecked earlier agreements: hardline conservatives. The Ryan-Murray deal would raise 2014 spending to $1.012 trillion, instead of $967 billion. It also includes $23 billion in additional deficit reduction meant as a sop to hardliners, although this doesn’t appear to be doing the trick. The conservative pressure group Heritage Action called the agreement “a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal [that] will take our nation in the wrong direction.” Mark the group down as a “no.” And because the Ryan-Murray deal is an ordinary bill, not a special resolution, it is subject to a filibuster. So Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz may already be warming up his vocal chords.
The deal could also run into problems with liberals upset that it doesn’t extend federal unemployment benefits that are due to expire on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million people .
Still, leaders in both parties have gone to great lengths to avoid past problems and ensure that any deal has the best chance of passage. It’s no accident that Ryan, a conservative stalwart, is leading the charge for Republicans, instead of John Boehner, or that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have stayed in the background.
The test now is whether even a modest compromise can survive the congressional gauntlet and make it to the president’s desk. One way to think about Congress and the budget deal is as a drug addict who’s just finished a stint in rehab. In the private, cloistered world of the rehab facility, the patient managed to straighten himself out and drop his bad habits. He’s looking a lot better. Now he must venture forth into the world and test that newfound sobriety. He’ll either steer a healthier course and start functioning as he should or go the full Lohan and relapse into the same old damaging habits. We’ll know by Christmas.