FIRST, YOU HAVE to step back from the brink.
That's exactly what lawmakers in Washington did with a bipartisan budget deal that passed 332-94 in a House vote last night.
Let's be clear about what the proposed deal does not do: It does not address long-term spending or revenue issues, or safety-net programs such as Medicare and Social Security. It doesn't stop all of the ridiculous sequester cuts, which carved up federal spending in a willy-nilly, irresponsible way.
But it does mark a significant point of departure from the standoff politics that have brought the nation to the brink of credit default several times and shut down the government this fall.
It's a step away from the edge, an opportunity to restore the fundamental idea that lawmakers go to Washington to govern, not just to ply rival political ideologies.
The two-year budget deal would fund key projects from both sides of the aisle, giving a boost to defense and more money for domestic investment in education and infrastructure.
It would also normalize the way federal government agencies operate. For years, because there has been no real budget, they've had to guess about how much they had to spend, and hold off on long-term commitments because of the uncertainty of continuing resolutions and threatened shutdowns.
More important, it gives Washington an opportunity to move toward discussion of bigger issues. This is a small step forward. Once taken, it should ease the transition to larger, more complex issues. The key players in crafting the deal are much the same as the core of the group that walked Congress away from the shutdown in October. If they continue to work together, they might convince the rest of our lawmakers to deal seriously with issues that have defied rational debate for years.
One area where the proposed deal falls woefully short is on unemployment benefits. As written, the deal would toss about a million of the nation's unemployed off long-term unemployment. Republicans have been hankering to do this for a while, as Democrats have continually held the line. It's shortsighted in economic terms; money saved up-front in reduced benefits yanks economic activity out of the economy, effectively cutting the country's nose off to spite its face in a still-fragile recovery.
It's also morally repugnant. How can such a monumental compromise (the first currency given to that word in Washington in ages) be achieved through the cruelest cut to the nation's neediest?
This deal shows that when lawmakers act like grown-ups, America can take a step away from the brink. But if unemployment benefits get slashed, it will also show a willingness to toss the most vulnerable over the cliff in the name of progress.
Democrats should draw a bright line between this deal and the unemployed, who aren't at fault for our economic troubles and shouldn't be sacrificed to move ahead.