US budget deal not sign of new bipartisanship

Almost to the end of a legislative year that earned them the ignominious title of the "do-nothing Congress", United States lawmakers finally came together this week to do something.

Despite all the criticism that greeted the budget deal bipartisan negotiators put forward last week, the agreement was easily passed by the House of Representatives and now looks almost certain to get the nod from the Senate after passing a "test vote" on Tuesday.

Yet for all the mumblings about steps taken in the right direction - and even some open musings over whether Congress might also move on other long-stuck laws - those hoping the global economy can be saved from the vagaries of US political drama should not hold their breath.

This budget deal, observers said, does not herald a new era of compromise. Rather, it is suicide prevention - a result of bloody- minded political calculation.

"The budget deal is not a harbinger of bipartisanship and compromise," said Dr Thomas Mann, the academic from the Brookings Institution who co-wrote a book on congressional gridlock titled It's Worse Than It Looks.

He said that while the deal is important in that it removes the threat of government shutdown for two years and replaces part of a round of severe budget cuts, there is little in it to suggest a significant change of mood.

Rather, he suspects the memory of the damage the recent government shutdown did to both parties has persuaded lawmakers to avoid another one.

"The two parties will act together when some action is absolutely essential, but that excludes most of a positive legislative agenda while power is divided," he said.

Indeed, much of the bipartisan push to get the new budget passed has focused on the need to prevent a repeat of the October shutdown that cost thousands of American workers their jobs and left a US$24 billion (S$30.2 billion) hole in the economy.

Senator John McCain, a former presidential candidate, took to the the Senate floor on Tuesday to issue a strong rebuke to Republicans thinking of voting against the Bill.

"The American people steadfastly reject another shutdown of the government," he said. "To somehow vote against it without an alternative to keep the government from shutting down, I think lacks some intellectual integrity."

But public perception aside, there is another strategic reason why Republicans have eased up on the budget: They don't want it to distract from the troubled rollout of President Barack Obama's pet health-care legislation.

Had no budget deal been struck, US lawmakers would be back debating it next month after their Christmas break, providing an inconvenient distraction from the problem-plagued Obamacare.

Even one of the deal's key negotiators, Republican Representative Paul Ryan, made it clear that fighting Obamacare was part of the plan.

"We also don't want to have shutdown drama so we can focus on replacing Obamacare," he said in a televised interview on NBC over the weekend.

And though hostage-taking over the budget may now be off the table for two years, conservative lawmakers may not have been put off the tactic completely.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he does not expect the next attempt to raise the debt ceiling - due some time in the first half of next year - to go through without hostages.

"Every time the President asks us to raise the debt ceiling is a good time to try to achieve something important for the country," he said.

While any deal is welcome in a Congress that has passed fewer laws than in any previous session, this compromise is more of a strategic retreat than a step towards bipartisanship.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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