It would be nice to think that Congress' easy passage of a bipartisan compromise on the federal budget this month was the sign of a new spirit of cooperation on Capitol Hill. But in the hallways of the Senate last week, there was little evidence of bipartisanship, or even Christmas cheer.
"We need a cooling-off period," Sen.
Indeed, next year is unlikely to get better, for one simple reason: It's a congressional election year. And not an ordinary election year. A significant number of Republican incumbents in both the House and Senate will face primary challenges from
That means that some of the legislators who were once likely to seek cross-aisle compromises will be trying to show how tough and conservative they are. Getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything will be harder than ever.
"Good things seldom happen in election years," noted former Rep. Bill Frenzel, a moderate Republican from Minnesota.
Where are the conflicts likely to come? Rep.
Republicans have tried several times to use the debt ceiling — the limit on the Treasury's authority to borrow — as leverage to force fiscal concessions from President
"We will not want to walk away with nothing" from a debt ceiling vote, Ryan vowed on
The only good news in this picture is that the disastrous
Ryan says Republicans have learned a lesson from that episode. Next year, he said, they'll be looking for goals that are practical, not unreachable. "You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.
That was the message House Speaker
"If it happened, we'd get blamed for it," a Boehner advisor noted.
On the other side, even though Obama insists he will refuse to negotiate over the debt limit, that doesn't mean nobody will negotiate.
In two debt limit battles this year, Obama refused to bargain — but Reid stepped in and helped arrange a deal. In both cases, Republicans agreed to "suspend" the debt ceiling; Democrats didn't give up much of substance in return, but they did make procedural concessions.
Obama's absence from those negotiations wasn't a problem; it was a plus. Especially in an election year, Republicans don't want to be tarred as too eager to compromise with a man conservatives love to loathe. A deal with Reid looks better; a compromise with the less-pugnacious Murray, better still.
So, with luck, what we can hope for next year is a return to what you might call "normal" partisan warfare: tough, sometimes even angry, but not as destructive (or, in the Republicans' case, self-destructive) as before. Just don't expect much to get done.
There won't be a grand bargain over spending and taxes; that has turned out to be unreachable. But there may be a bit more progress on massaging the budget cuts of the
There probably won't be an increase in the minimum wage, although there could be an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.
And there won't be a grand compromise over a
And you thought this year's Congress didn't get much done.
Still, if the legislators can get through 2014 without provoking a crisis, that will count as progress. When it comes to Congress, we've learned to grade on a curve.