Budget battles: The California-ization of D.C.

The California Legislature shouldn't be anyone's role model when it comes to enacting a budget. Nevertheless, Congress seems to have taken a page or two from Sacramento's playbook as it struggles to adopt a spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year. In both cases, Democrats sought a deal by agreeing to cut billions of dollars worth of programs they'd previously tried to defend while a unified GOP minority held out for deeper spending reductions and for broad, contentious changes in policy.

The impasse in Sacramento put the kibosh on Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to ask voters in June to avert billions more in cuts by extending four expiring tax increases. The one in Washington threatens to shut down much of the federal government Saturday, when the clock runs out on a stopgap funding bill. Congressional leaders have recently made progress, slowly and unsteadily, toward a compromise that may avert a shutdown or at least keep it brief. If they succeed, they could provide California lawmakers with some lessons in how to stop talking about a compromise and actually strike one.

There's plenty of frustration in both parties and on both coasts. Republicans see Democrats trying to cling to a government that's unaffordable and intrusive. Democrats see Republicans holding the government hostage to try to force the will of their most conservative wing onto everyone else. And members of both parties don't trust the other to make real concessions.

With neither side having the votes to win outright, they simply have to compromise. Refusing to do so isn't just obstinate, it's undemocratic. And the public has little patience for lawmakers who can't get the job done — witness the backlash against Republicans in 1996 after the last federal shutdown, which most voters blamed on the House GOP. It's not clear whom the public will blame this time if all "nonessential" services are halted Saturday, but Democrats certainly appear to be the ones more willing to meet in the middle.

House GOP leaders seem disinclined to risk another shutdown, and have shown more flexibility than their caucus' "tea party" wing. In California, however, many GOP legislators are more worried about being punished by their constituents for giving ground than for not doing so.

Any hope for ending the impasse in Sacramento rests with pragmatic Republicans who would rather use their budget leverage to obtain meaningful policy changes than to block an extension of the expiring tax breaks. With Democrats showing a willingness to compromise on those issues, the lesson Republicans should take from what's happening in Washington is this: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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