Column

That ugly spending bill? That's what compromise looks like

The ugly budget bill passed last week is a reminder that bipartisanship has its downsides

The trillion-dollar spending bill that the House of Representatives passed last week had something for everyone to hate. But it was still a step, however awkward, toward making the United States governable again.

What was not to like? Plenty. Tea party conservatives hated the bill because it didn't hobble the two programs they hate most, President Obama's healthcare law and his executive action on immigrants in the country illegally. Liberals hated it because it included a murky provision allowing federally insured banks to get back into the business of selling risky derivatives, one of the practices that produced the financial crash of 2008. Reformers on both sides hated it because it was stuffed with obscure policy changes that most members of Congress never had time to read, much less debate. This was an ugly bill, passed awkwardly, after much shouting and distress in both parties. Nobody on Capitol Hill was exchanging congratulations or high-fives.

And yet, it had its virtues.

It avoided another shutdown of the federal government, an outcome that would have produced not only chaos but also potential damage to the economy. More than that: It actually funded most of the government until next Sept. 30, giving the next Congress nine full months to write a new budget without another crisis.

Those may sound like modest achievements, but that's more than Congress managed last year.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) bragged that he was passing the bill without resorting to even “a threat of a government shutdown.”

Boehner's goal, an aide said, was to make sure next year's GOP majority can set its own agenda instead of lurching from one fiscal cliff to the next.

But to get there, Boehner had to take a pragmatic step toward the center, cutting a deal with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in his final week as majority leader in the Senate.

That meant Boehner had to withstand yet another rebellion from tea party conservatives in his own ranks. Once again, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tried to rally conservatives to block the deal, this time over immigration. Almost 30% of Boehner's Republicans voted against the bill. Boehner needed about an equal percentage of Democrats to vote for it — and he needed the help of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to get their votes.

What was in it for Obama and the Democrats? They didn't want a government shutdown either. After negotiating a backroom deal through Reid, they didn't want to risk being blamed if it fell apart. More important, the alternative looked worse from their standpoint: a two-month funding bill that would have allowed next year's Republican-led Congress to cut Obama's favorite programs more deeply and more quickly.

In other words, this bill is what compromise looks like. It had bipartisan support in the center, and bipartisan opposition on both left and right.

It's hard to remember that what we witnessed last week was once normal legislative behavior, especially in times of divided government. Instead of colliding, each side gave something up.

But the trouble with bipartisan compromises — one rarely advertised by advocates of bipartisanship like me — is that they are no fun. They are, by definition, disappointing to both sides.

And that was certainly true of last week's bill. Conservatives howled in genuine rage; in their view, they won a national mandate in last month's congressional election. “Why is John Boehner cutting deals with the president?” demanded Sean Hannity of Fox News. “Boehner has disrespected the people who voted for Republicans.”

On the other side, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) issued a bare-knuckled warning to other Democrats that progressives would punish them if they failed to block the provision on derivatives, which had been drafted by lobbyists for Citibank. “A vote for this bill is a vote for taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,” Warren said.

That fissure between populists and Wall Street-friendly centrists is widening into open warfare among Democrats, who have managed to act almost in unison for the last six years. Instead of one party riven by civil war, we now have two — and just in time for presidential primaries.

For the moment, though, it appears that the two parties' establishments are in control. Just look at one more of the less-attractive features of that spending bill: a clause that increased the amount of money a donor can give a national political party from $32,400 to ten times that amount, $324,000.

How murky was that provision? By the end of the week, nobody on Capitol Hill had stepped forward to acknowledge putting it in the bill, but it had firm (if discreet) backing from leaders in both parties — because it would strengthen their institutional clout at the expense of grass-roots insurgents.
There could hardly be a clearer sign that American politics is slowly returning to normal — or a clearer reminder that bipartisanship, however welcome, isn't always pretty.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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