Relief from debt deal will be short-lived

Agreement sets deadlines for next round in unending partisan battles

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (right), the majority leader, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York spoke with reporters about the budget and debt ceiling deal.
win mcnamee/ Getty Images
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (right), the majority leader, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York spoke with reporters about the budget and debt ceiling deal.

WASHINGTON — Tired of the excruciating debate in Washington over the nation’s budget, the debt ceiling, and the deficit? Sick of the government shutdown, of a Congress that stumbles, again and again, into cliffhanger moments that threaten economic calamity?

Get used to it.

The deal Congress approved Wednesday night to avoid defaulting on the national debt and reopen government agencies would set up three new deadlines in December, January, and February that present the possibility of fresh crises, including more threats of shutdown and debt default.


It means that for all the talk of tectonic battles and doomsday scenarios, the decisions this week will not be the end of the debate. It will instead mark the continuation of a drawn-out process that forces the nation — from Wall Street stock traders to average heartland constituents — to endure similar fights in a matter of weeks.

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As the current chapter lurched to a close, the reaction was not so much relief as despair and anger over the state of things in Washington.

“Lack of leadership, unwillingness to face reality,” Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, said in an interview. “A lot of us governors who were elected in 2010 faced similar budget problems. But we had the courage to make the decisions right up front.”

The most recent crisis was instigated largely by Republicans backed by the Tea Party movement, who insisted that the government not be funded unless President Obama’s health care law was delayed or defunded. GOP leaders opposed the strategy, predicting that it would not work and likely backfire. They were right. It failed miserably. Republicans were unable to extract any concessions from Obama on his signature legislation.

Some moderate voices in the GOP are now optimistic that arch-conservatives will begin to listen to the party’s wiser, cooler hands — and be more open to compromise as pressure builds to cut long-lasting fiscal deals.


“Hopefully, having inflicted this much self-torture on themselves, they will be able to do it now,” said Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. “Maybe we had to go through this process to show people [hard-line Republicans] weren’t interested in governing. They were only interested in their own cults. They basically cost us a lot of credibility in reducing the deficit and debt.”

That may be wishful thinking. Conservatives emerged unrepentant from this week’s House defeat and vowed to continue their fight — against both Democrats and their own party leaders.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that aims to elect conservative Republicans, sent out an e-mail to supporters this week, blasting Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell for “negotiating the Republican surrender” with Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

“He would rather concede to the Democrats than fight them,” Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director, wrote in the e-mail. “He would rather fund Obamacare than admit conservatives were right.”

That helps define the political atmosphere in which the House and Senate Republicans will find themselves as the current crisis winds down and the next series of events looms. Under the Senate deal, the government, in its 16th day of shutdown on Wednesday, would be reopened and funded until Jan. 15.


The debt ceiling, which allows the US Treasury to borrow money to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized, would be raised to permit new bond issues until Feb. 7. There would also be a separate budget conference committee that would deal with longer-term spending issues. It would be required to deliver recommendations by mid-December.

That committee, made up of House and Senate members, is eerily reminiscent of the so-called Super Committee that was formed in 2011 to solve similar problems. When that committee failed to broker a compromise, it triggered deep automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.

Indeed, this Congress’s track record suggests that any far-reaching budget deal will prove elusive, with such efforts failing to produce major action in August 2011, which was the last debt-ceiling crisis, and again at the end of 2012, the so-called fiscal cliff.

Reining in spending on Medicare and Social Security, tax reform, and reducing deficits — all issues that have certain measures of bipartisan support — remain unresolved.

“We’re going from crisis to crisis, treating the symptoms but not treating the disease,” said David Walker, a former US comptroller who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

In the waning hours of this week’s debate, the final sticking points were stunningly small bore in the context of federal budgets and debt.

A key area of difference was whether the government should subsidize insurance premiums for congressional staff members who are being required to purchase health coverage from the health law’s exchanges.

“Congress is certainly confirming that they are a body of procrastinators,” said David B. Cohen, a professor at the University of Akron. “There’s an utter failure of the House and the Senate to deal with these big problems we have and come together on some sort of a grand bargain.”

He added: “It is absolutely perplexing that Congress can be so dysfunctional. As someone who has taught an American Congress class the last 15 years, this is as dysfunctional a Congress as I’ve seen. And I can’t believe these folks can’t get their act together.”

The way the debate on Capitol Hill has unfolded has left just about everyone looking foolish. Republicans put forward unrealistic demands. When Democrats refused to negotiate, Republicans appeared even more wounded, given their intraparty squabbles and polls that showed that Americans blamed them for the crisis more than they blamed Democrats.

“It’s all about politics,” Branstad said. “It’s about gaining political advantage over the other party as opposed to what’s best for the country. That’s what’s so disturbing. The president is wrong to spend all his time attacking the Republicans. And the Republicans are wrong to spend all their time attacking him.”

Branstad has worked in Iowa with a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate, a bipartisan approach that he does not see in Washington.

In Iowa’s case, Branstad said, they have cut state employees, reduced spending every year, and stopped relying on state reserve funds for annual budget spending. Aside from his first year in office, he said, state lawmakers have not waited until the last day of the fiscal year to pass a budget.

President Obama has tried to empathize with voter frustrations.

“Since [Republicans] have taken over the House of Representatives, we have one of these crises every three months. Have you noticed?” Obama said earlier this month in Rockville, Md. “And you keep on thinking, all right, well, this is going to be the last one; they’re not going to do this again. And then they do it again.”

“I know you’re tired of it,” he added. “I’m tired of it.”

But Obama has also done little to elevate the issue of the debt and deficit outside of the times of crises.

“We need committed, inspired, inspirational presidential leadership,” said Walker, the former US comptroller. “We haven’t had it in a long time . . . on this issue.”

Similarly, he added, members of Congress need to do more to heed the calls from their constituents.

“They’re supposed to be doing what the public wants,” Walker added. “And they’re not. They’re absolutely not.”

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.