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Boehner’s swan song: House approves two-year budget deal

The deal raises the debt ceiling and ends the four-year-long sequester by lifting caps on both defense and discretionary spending.

With the budget deal, outgoing House Speaker John Boehner delivers a “clean barn” to his successor, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

WASHINGTON — In governing, you can’t always get what you want. On Wednesday afternoon, however, members of Congress got what they could: a bipartisan deal to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling — staving off crisis politics on Capitol Hill through September 2017.

The so-called Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 sailed through the House of Representatives, 266 to 167 — 187 Democrats and 79 Republicans voted in favor — after being announced by outgoing Speaker John Boehner and congressional leaders early in the week.

The deal, which would raise the debt ceiling and end the four-year-long sequester by lifting caps on both defense and discretionary spending, among other things, is basically Boehner’s swan song. He negotiated the deal along with other top lawmakers from both parties, as well as the White House.

Wednesday’s vote, as Boehner puts it, “clears the barn” — sparing incoming speaker Rep. Paul Ryan and other members from contentious budget politics in an election year. It’s as close to a clean slate as Capitol Hill has seen in some time, and is being hailed by proponents as an example of governing through compromise.

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In the Minnesota delegation, each of the five Democrats voted to support the bill, while Second District Rep. John Kline was the only Minnesota Republican to join them. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer joined the majority of the GOP conference in voting against it.

But on Wednesday afternoon, even members who voted yes found plenty to dislike about the bill, and the circumstances of its passage.

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan, for example, took issue with what he called an exclusionary negotiating process that ignored committees and rank-and-file members. “At some level, you start to say, what are the rest of us doing here?” he asked. “Are we there for the photo ops?”

Nolan, who served in Congress in the 1970s, said he “served in a time where the full Congress was involved in this process…now everything’s done by the Big 2 or Big 4. What’s most concerning is so many members of Congress seem quite comfortable with it.”

Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison, along with fellow progressives, called the budget a bare-bones mechanism that merely keeps the lights on, without providing any vision. “We’re not making new progress as a nation, we’re not taking care of the problems the nation is facing, we’re just averting disasters,” he said. “People should see it as, we’re doing the best we can with people who are absolutely hostile to government.”

In a statement, Kline said the agreement was “far from perfect,” but added “it provides needed certainty along with entitlement reforms to keep the federal government on track to save taxpayers more than $2 trillion.”

Indeed, the budget deal featured give-and-take for Republicans and Democrats. The deal would raise non-defense discretionary spending by $80 billion, which Democrats like. They were also pleased with language that prevents an imminent hike in Medicare premiums and cuts to Social Security benefits.

Meanwhile, the entitlement reforms Kline mentioned, like tweaks to how Social Security benefits are received, have been desired by the GOP for years. Members of both parties were pleased with increased defense spending.

‘Conditioned to mediocrity’

Top congressional leaders hailed the passage of the deal as a testament to the health of bipartisanship in the legislative branch. The deal, according to the House’s number two Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, “shows what is possible when Democrats and Republicans work together to get something done.”

In a statement, Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum echoed Hoyer: “This bipartisan agreement circumvents the irresponsible and dangerous stranglehold imposed by Tea Party extremists,” she said. The deal “shows that the American people are well-served when Republicans and Democrats work through their differences and achieve compromise.”

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Outside the House chamber on Wednesday afternoon, that kumbaya moment hadn’t quite materialized. Lawmakers were at odds over whether the budget deal represented a breakthrough in compromise-oriented governing — or whether it was merely symptomatic of a system that continues to be broken.

The last two years of congressional dysfunction have skewed perceptions of what passes for bipartisanship, according to Ellison. “We are getting conditioned to mediocrity. What we think is a good budget is basically a keep-the-lights on budget. We’re getting stockholmed over here.”

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer declined to speak to MinnPost, but explained in a statement that Congress was not addressing long-term concerns like the federal debt. The bill, he said, “circumvented the legislative process and cut out the input of the American people…I am optimistic that with changing tides in Washington, we can advance policies through an open and transparent committee process.”

The budget bill will now be sent to the Senate, where it should receive considerable support, even as presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul vowed to filibuster it at a GOP debate Wednesday night. Boehner’s last day as speaker is Thursday, and the federal government is expected to hit its borrowing limit next week, so time is of the essence.

Without Boehner’s departure, the deal likely would not have been possible, Nolan said. “On occasion,” he laughed, “chaos offers opportunities that may have not otherwise existed.”