There were no champagne corks popping at the White House after Congress passed a two-year budget deal, no declarations of a new era of cooperation in President Barack Obama’s second term.
Instead, the modest agreement that passed Wednesday served as a stark year-end reminder of how low expectations for Washington sank in 2013, particularly for a president who hoped his resounding re-election would clear the way for progress on immigration, the long-term debt and tax reform.
The president’s advisers say they’re still searching for the larger meaning in the bipartisan budget deal, if there is one at all. At best, it could provide an opening for making progress next year on Obama’s stalled legislative agenda. It also could be a political play by Republicans to keep the focus on the disastrous rollout of Obama’s health care law and avoid another partial government shutdown like the one in October that tanked the party’s approval ratings.
Or it could simply be an isolated move by lawmakers eager to head for the exits after a year that was perhaps even more dismal for Congress than for the president.
The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said administration officials were “not getting overexcited because we’re not naive about the obstruction that continues to exist and the partisanship that tends more often than not to paralyze Washington and Congress.”
Nine Republicans joined the Senate’s Democrats in passing the budget deal Wednesday and sending it to the White House for Obama’s signature. The GOP-led House approved the measure a week ago. The agreement is aimed at preventing another government shutdown for nearly two more years and eases the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts — known as the sequester — on the Pentagon and other domestic agencies. The pact was crafted by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.
Like the White House, Republicans were cautious in predicting whether Washington’s brush with regular order was a preview of things to come in 2014.
“I don’t know how to read into it in terms of what compromise opportunities lay ahead,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “What I think it does do is clear the deck of some potentially contentious issues and give everyone space to do the normal legislating and governing.”
Buck cited immigration reform and a farm bill as two potential avenues for cooperation next year. House Republicans will gather for a retreat next month to map out a strategy on those issues, as well as a game plan for the next fight over increasing the nation’s borrowing ability, which is supposed to hit its limit early next year.
It’s the shadow of the debt ceiling perhaps more than anything else that has both parties wary of celebrating their end-of-the-year budget compromise. A debt limit standoff between Republicans and the White House brought the country to the brink of a default in October, and both sides are lining up behind their same hard-line positions once again.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, says Republicans will seek concessions from Democrats in order to raise the debt limit, declaring, “We don’t want nothing out of this.” But the White House continues to insist that Obama, buoyed by his success in forcing the GOP to bend this fall, will not negotiate over the borrowing limit.
“Unless there is massive amounts of self-delusion going on, the Republicans must know that the president is never going to pay ransom for paying America’s bills,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser, said.
If Washington can avert another down-to-the-wire debt ceiling fight, White House officials hope to revive a stalled immigration overhaul while also trying to chalk up smaller victories on housing reform and infrastructure spending. And Obama will take a stab at increasing the minimum wage, though his advisers acknowledge that proposal faces tougher opposition from the GOP.
As in past years, the White House will also be looking for areas where Obama can act on his own. One proposal includes getting commitments from private companies to hire Americans who have been unemployed for lengthy periods of time. Executive orders are also likely on climate change and the economy.
With just three years in office left for Obama, Pfeiffer said there’s a greater sense of urgency in the White House over making use of presidential powers if December’s “kumbaya” moment quickly fades.
“We can’t wait around,” he said.
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