A Bipartisan Budget Deal. How Did That Happen?

We all know by now that Congress is gridlocked and dysfunctional. But those who say that Republicans have become too extreme to negotiate with are taking a huge risk. We saw how Republicans were unable, on their own, to come up with a plan to avoid a government shutdown and/or default on our debt. And we also know how devastating it would be to sit by and let one (or both!) of those things happen. So talk, we must. As a result, we now have a bipartisan budget and debt ceiling deal. How did that happen?

Movement towards a common sense caucus

Back in early 2013 the development of a common sense caucus was something President Obama began to work towards. Most of the media got sidetracked into thinking that the President’s efforts were a social endeavor to assuage rumors of his aloofness. But here’s how he described it:

I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through. I know that there are Democrats who’d rather do smart entitlement reform than let these cuts go through. So there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill. It’s just — it’s a silent group right now, and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard.

In the coming days and in the coming weeks I’m going to keep on reaching out to them, both individually and as groups of senators or members of the House, and say to them, let’s fix this — not just for a month or two, but for years to come.

More recently, this is what Martin Longman was referring to when he wrote about the “responsible caucus.”

I’ve pointed out, over and over again, that the coalition of representatives in the House that votes to pay our bills and fund our government is the real majority in the House. And that majority has been made up mostly of Democrats since John Boehner became Speaker in 2011. We’ve been able to limp along with this odd situation where Democrats are responsible for voting for Republican appropriations bills because the “responsible caucus” in Washington has been able to keep the government going and willing to act in bizarre ways in order to keep it going.

It will be interesting to watch – as the Freedom Caucus becomes more demanding and disruptive – if that opens up more opportunities for the common sense caucus. We’re already seeing that happen with the Ex-Im Bank.

McConnell promises no shutdowns

When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014, right out of the box Majority Leader McConnell promised that there would be no government shutdowns on his watch and no defaults on our debt. Just after John Boehner announced he would leave Congress, he added his voice to that promise.

These two veterans are keeping their eye on the general election campaign that will commence next fall. They know that if either of these things were to happen, Republicans would be blamed and it would deal a devastating blow to their presidential prospects (and could cause them to lose their majority in the Senate).

Negotiations commence

Last month Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders began meeting with the White House to negotiate a deal. It is interesting that, even with news reports like this one from back in September, those who oppose the deal are calling the whole process “secretive.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a longtime Boehner ally, said it was no surprise that the budget talks would upset the House’s right flank.

“There’ll be some people that will be unhappy with it. But the reality is, we have to get a budget deal somehow,” he said, adding that “we’ve all known for six months, eight months” that negotiations would have to happen.

Simpson said that he believes Boehner wants to get a broader budget deal before he departs at the end of October, to give lawmakers a chance to work out the details before December.

“It’s one of the things he’s going to try to clear off the table for the next Speaker.”

GOP leaders are seeking to strike a deal that would set top-line budget numbers for the next two years. Congress also faces pressure to raise the debt ceiling, and Boehner on Tuesday didn’t rule out taking care of that issue before the end of next month.

Obama vetos NDAA

Just last week President Obama sent a signal that he was serious about his negotiating position by vetoing the National Defense Authorization Act. Knowing that the one thing Republican hawks wanted in any budget deal was a lifting of the sequester caps on Defense spending, that veto maintained the Democrat’s leverage in these negotiations. The result is that – just as sequestration cut equally from both defense and domestic spending – this budget increases them both.

It would be nice to see more of this kind of governing going forward. Whether or not that happens will primarily be up to Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.