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Nation can’t even agree on goals

Updated: November 19, 2013 6:24AM

With the government shutdown and threat of debt default behind us, lots of voices are calling on President Barack Obama and Congress, specifically the GOP-controlled House, to work together to get something done. The problem is that Americans are deeply divided on what they want Washington to do.

Obama and Democrats believe in an ever-expanding role for an ever-bigger government. Republicans seek to preserve the American tradition of limited government — moderate lawmakers and tea party legislators agree on this, but disagree on tactics to achieve this goal, with the tea party favoring confrontation.

These conflicting visions are why the Affordable Care Act is so radioactive. Obamacare is the fault line on this ideological divide, made all the more divisive because this huge expansion of federal power affecting one-sixth of the economy and reaching into so many lives was passed without a single GOP vote. In large measure, this partisan power grab created the tea party movement and in the 2010 elections propelled its representatives to Capitol Hill.

So what are the prospects of the two sides working together to get something done? We’ll find out soon.

The compromise passed Wednesday requires the House and Senate to agree on a budget by mid-December. A yawning chasm separates the two sides. The Democratic budget from the Senate includes a nearly $1 trillion tax increase over a decade, anathema to Republicans. The GOP-budget from the House would reduce Medicare and Medicaid spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, far more than the Senate bill.

The wild card is the Budget Control Act, the sequester automatic spending cuts enacted in the 2011 debt-ceiling fight. Both sides dislike the sequester, Democrats because it cuts from domestic programs and Republicans because it reduces disproportionately defense spending. But Republicans warmed to it because the sequester produced the first back-to-back reduction in government spending in half a century. The GOP will require something like meaningful entitlement reform in exchange for easing sequester cuts.

A new budget would replace the compromise extension of current funding to Jan. 15 and keep the government open. Meaningful budget reforms would also address long-term deficit worries. The nation’s authority to borrow money runs out Feb. 7. With tea party passions still high, could that date occasion another Washington standoff?

Maybe not. According to Politico, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell inserted into the compromise a change in procedure. Rather than having Congress vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling, the measure would let legislators vote to disapprove a debt increase, which Obama could then veto.

This strikes me as an abdication, maybe unconstitutional, of the House’s “power of the purse” by turning over the initiative on the debt to the White House. It is a sign of how desperate McConnell is to avoid another no-win debt fight that only tarnishes the GOP brand with independent voters. Whether it helps bring Democrats and Republicans closer to working together to get something done is another question.


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