The federal government in Washington shut down Tuesday when a light dusting of snowflakes fell upon the city, but Congress persevered despite the weather, as lawmakers powered through negotiations for a budget deal that, by some accounts, doesn’t matter all that much.
Congress is on the verge of agreeing to its first bicameral budget resolution since the beginning of the Obama era, which sounds really important! But as lawmakers concede — and the uncharacteristically calm, even jolly vibe inside the Capitol Building attests — not reaching a deal probably won’t ruin anyone’s Christmas.
Passing a resolution would provide some much-needed peace of mind over federal budgeting for the next year, but it's not crucial for the government to function. Failing to reach a deal would merely serve as a continuation of congressional behavior that many Americans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
For months, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has met with Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to hash out an agreement for a congressional budget resolution. This resolution would not be officially considered law, but it would provide spending levels to guide House and Senate appropriators next year. Ryan, a Republican, and Murray, a Democrat, planned to meet again Tuesday afternoon, according to several senators with knowledge of the meeting.
While not required, a budget resolution would put a refreshing end to Congress’ habit of governing through short-term stop-gap spending bills, and it would eliminate the risk of a government shutdown in 2014. Since the beginning of this year, the government has operated under blunt sequestration levels, which mandated across-the-board cuts to federal spending. Democrats hope they can replace those cuts with smarter savings elsewhere via a budget deal, but Republicans say it will take a lot to convince them to act.
But unlike Democrats, many Republicans don’t see eliminating sequestration as a priority.
“Republicans know that the one major victory they have is sequestration,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Tuesday.
Or, as Republican strategist Grover Norquist described sequestration: “It’s our crown jewels.”
“In the entire Obama administration,” Norquist told Yahoo News earlier this year, “the one thing of value Republicans have won is the sequester.”
So if Democrats come to the negotiating table with demands for higher spending levels — as it appears they are — Republicans see little reason to give in.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are facing pressure from conservative and tea party groups such as Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, which are urging them not to support the emerging deal based on unsavory preliminary news reports about details within the package.
Although final details about the budget plan are not yet public, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, set expectations for the final package low.
“It’s not going to be what mainstream Republicans hoped for,” Sessions told reporters. “It will probably turn out to be a real tough call for a lot of people.”
And if Congress fails to reach an agreement? No big deal, Sessions said.
“I don’t think a deal has to be reached if it’s not a good deal. There are a lot of alternatives they can pursue,” Sessions said. “I don’t think we should say it’s essential, but I do think it will be healthy to reach an agreement that will unite both parties.”
It’s hard enough to get Congress — especially this Congress — to fulfill even its most basic “essential” duties. Doing something “healthy” just might take a Christmas miracle.