Finally, Congress has reached a provisional deal to pass a budget for the remaining six months of Fiscal Uear 2011. As part of that agreement a continuing resolution will keep the government funded through Thursday, thereby avoiding the shutdown of government services that would have begun today, while the final budget proposal makes its way through the legislative process.
The major points to note in the agreement are that Republicans managed to secure spending cut levels that Democrats initially opposed, while Democrats removed policy riders from the budget that Republicans had originally made non-negotiable.
Both sides are predictably claiming victory in the negotiations, but what has emerged is that this deal has done nothing but postpone a final resolution of the issues at stake. Republicans got historic cuts in government spending, but settled for a deal far short of their initial demands to concentrate on making the case over the next few months for cutting trillions of dollars, not a few billion, from the deficit. Democrats protected some of their key policy priorities, but as part of the compromise consented to a full debate and vote in the Senate on the health care law and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
It will take some months for the truth of what actually took place in Congress yesterday to emerge. All day Republicans insisted the level of spending cuts were holding up a resolution to the budget impasse. Democrats countered that the figures were not the problem, but as Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said in a speech to pro-choice supporters on Wednesday, that Republicans were committed to policies or "riders" that would end up "killing" women. And in more measured comments on the Senate floor on Friday, Majority Leader Harry Reid emphasised that he was prepared to take the drastic measure of shutting the government down because"Republicans are asking me to sacrifice my wife’s health, my daughter’s health and my nine granddaughters’ health. They’re asking me to sacrifice the health of women in Nevada and across America. I won’t do it.”
The conservative response was to dismiss these charges as ludicrous, and then emphasise how the amount of cuts stalling the talks was minuscule amount when compared to the overall debt problem. Their main charge was that the Democrats were prepared to shut the government down over a few billion dollars, when the numbers involved were not even enough to finance America's borrowing requirements for a single day. As Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, framed the situation in a late afternoon post at the conservative Redstate.com:
“Don’t get me wrong, cuts in spending are a move in the right direction. House Republicans have brought about a change from the spending binge of the last two years. But it’s time to face the facts. This is the “small ball” battle that House leadership has chosen to engage. The current battle has devolved to an agenda that is almost too limited to warrant the kind of fighting that we’re now seeing in Washington.”
The confusion and frustration about why no agreement had been reached led Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Director Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), late in the afternoon, to advise reporters to submit Freedom of Information Act requests in a few weeks' time for the relevant emails; where they would find that the dispute had been caused all along by demands from the Republicans.
Amid the turmoil in Washington, one priority of both parties has become clear. This "small ball" battle over last year's budget saw the unveiling of the major lines that will dominate American political discourse from now until the Presidential elections of 2012. The Democrats will go after Republican proposals to cut spending, claiming they rip apart the American safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. Republicans will contend that the Democrats' reckless refusal to face America's unsustainable deficit spending is killing the American Dream.
Yesterday was more about the posturing than the issues, and why President Obama kept well away from the fray. There was little for him to gain by getting involved in this initial skirmish in the much larger battles to come over America's economic future. As he stressed when the agreement was finally reached, and will repeat in his Weekly Address today, the final deal was a victory for bipartisanship. That is a slightly optimistic appraisal of yesterday's events --- it was more the consequence of neither party's leadership being confident of who would get the blame for a shutdown --- but it confirmed to the President that his best option for dealing with the stormy economic debates ahead is to adopt the role of mediator. And, as part of the same long-term scheme, Obama will keep the White House's powder dry for when it really needs to use the authority of the Presidency in opposing the Republican agenda for cutting government spending.
An exhausted Congress has settled for a headline compromise, once again punting the major ideological battles down the road.
Coming on Sunday: Sanctioning The Fights Over Health Care and Planned Parenthood