WASHINGTON - People hoping for a government that works better can't decide whether to cheer or lament a bipartisan budget bill that legislative leaders call a breakthrough even as they acknowledge it does little.
In an era of low expectations, House passage of the bill marks a rare cease-fire that should avoid a repeat of this fall's government shutdown and flirtation with default.
Yet it comes nowhere near the more ambitious efforts to address long-term spending and debt. Such comprehensive plans repeatedly collapsed in recent years despite secret White House talks, blue-ribbon panels, a congressional "supercommittee," and other devices and tactics.
Several Washington insiders warn against assuming the new budget deal will lead to progress on other stalemated issues.
"The president calls it a good first step, but to what?" said Bob Bixby of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which advocates far-reaching budget reforms. "My fear is that it may be the end of the search for the larger grand bargain rather than the beginning."
"Grand bargain" refers to a bipartisan accord that would start to slow the long-term cost projections of Social Security and Medicare while raising tax revenues to lower the deficit, among other things.
The bill that passed the House on Thursday, and awaits Senate action, is a tiny step forward, Bixby said. "But you can't get that excited if your kid brings home a D because it wasn't an F."
Sen. Patty Murray (D.,, Wash.), a chief architect of the budget deal, said the agreement helps "bring some respect to the word compromise."
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who represented Republicans in negotiating the deal, expressed hope that "the country is not going to see these shutdowns and Congress is going to get back to the business of paying the bills and prioritizing spending."
Both Murray and Ryan were interviewed on NBC's Meet the Press.
Some lawmakers see the glass half full. They hope the budget deal will cool partisan passions in 2014 and beyond.
"Maybe it's something we can build on," said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.). "Success begets success, and trust builds trust."
The budget deal eases a harsh set of spending cuts scheduled for 2014 and 2015. But it leaves intact most of the roughly $1 trillion in automatic cuts set to hit the military, domestic agencies, and Medicare providers through 2021.
Praise for the budget deal shows "just how low the aspirations have become around here," said Rep. David Price (D., N.C.). "We have to get back to budget deals on the scale of the 1990s, the ones that actually balanced the budget."