If it weren't so painful to watch the calculated posturing of self-interested politicians, Americans might relish what occurred in Washington this week. Congress reached a bipartisan budget deal that could signal the beginning of an epic political shift that ends the tea-party movement's domination of the Republican Party. Then again, maybe not. It's too early to tell.
Perhaps eager to head home for the holidays, tea-steeped lawmakers didn't drag out their fight to prevent the compromise from passing. They and some of the moneybags political groups that finance their campaigns have promised retaliation, however. And after a congressional recess, the fearful may again toe the line.
But the meek sure sounded bold this week. House Speaker John Boehner, who too often has bowed to the tea drinkers, stood up for the deal, brokered by Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray. "I don't care what they do," Boehner said of conservative groups opposing the legislation.
With Boehner finally showing some backbone, the House overwhelmingly voted for the budget agreement, 332-94, a week ago. The Senate followed suit Wednesday with a 64-36 vote. That welcome result was signaled on Monday, when 12 Republicans joined 55 Democrats to exceed the 60-vote threshold needed to allow the bill to be approved by a simple majority.
The budget pact avoids scheduled "sequester" cuts in defense and domestic spending over the next two years, making up those funds with other cuts spread out over 10 years. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has shed the centrist mantle he once wore as a champion of immigration reform, said Congress can't be trusted to make cuts later. But the Florida Republican's opposition appeared to be more tacking to the right in preparation for a presidential campaign.
Other Republicans and Democrats also seemed to have elections in mind when they criticized the deal for trimming future cost-of-living pension increases for military retirees under 62. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called them out Wednesday, noting that some of the same senators had praised the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, which suggested ending cost-of-living adjustments for all military retirees.
In the end, bipartisanship won. But how long will the victory last? During the hours-long quorum call on the budget deal, Republican senator after Republican senator, including McCain, stood up to assail the Affordable Care Act, as if that law were up for yet another vote. Days earlier, Ryan warned that Republicans might block another debt-ceiling hike in February unless more spending is cut.
That could mean another government shutdown. After all, President Obama has vowed never again to negotiate while the nation's borrowing power needs to be increased. But Republicans may be less likely to dig in their heels again. They still feel the sting of the public's disgust at the last shutdown. That's why they backed off and let this budget pass, and why there's hope that bipartisanship will win again.