Big debate over a small budget deal

Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democrat Senator Patty Murray announced a bipartisan budget deal on Thursday night.
Image caption Thursday night's budget deal had both sides claiming victory - and defeat

Modest. Tiny. Miniscule. The words used to describe Tuesday night's budget deal announcement have emphasised the small scale of the agreement.

Some of the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester were rescinded. Some deficit reduction was included. A repeat of the October government shutdown has, for now, been averted.

Even a limited agreement is an agreement, however, and Democrats and Republicans working together on anything these days is cause for some celebration in Washington. As Eleanor Clift writes, "In a Congress as broken as this one has been, a few steps matter."

The conservative editors of The Wall Street Journal heralded a "least bad agreement".

On the left, some commentators claimed a certain measure of victory, as big-ticket social safety net programmes were left untouched, while some spending was increased.

Then there are the "fee increases," which Slate's Matthew Yglesias says are really tax increases by another name.

"Democrats used to say they would insist on tax increases doing a fair share of the work of deficit reduction," he writes. "Republicans hate tax increases, so we used to get no deals of any kind. But this deal works because both sides have agreed to exploit a little semantic ambiguity around what exactly constitutes a tax increase."

Others were less sanguine about what they see as an agreement made on Republican terms.

"Republicans have massively changed the spending conversation since 2010," writes Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. "Austerity has won."

Esquire's Charles P Pierce sees the agreement as the latest example of Republicans moving the goalposts with each new round of negotiations.

"Republicans get enough of what they want so as to rest up for the next big grab, while the Democrats throw themselves a parade to honour how mature and grown-up they are," he writes. "For them, the deal is an end in itself. For the Republicans, it is a means to an end."

Salon's David Dayan says that the decision to increase pension contributions for federal workers is the "hidden disaster" in the agreement. Combined with recent pay freezes, furloughs and budget cuts, government workers have been taking it on the chin of late.

"If you wanted to devalue the role of government from the inside out, what we've done to federal employees over the past few years would be the perfect blueprint," he writes.

Conservative commentators like the Weekly Standard's William Kristol lauded the agreement's increase in military spending and a return to the normal budget appropriations process.

The biggest reason he's happy, however, is Republicans avoid another potentially damaging shutdown and can focus on winning elections in November 2014.

"The real alternative to the deal isn't a more fiscally conservative outcome achieved by Republican unity; it's GOP political disarray and policy defeat," he writes.

But how do hard-core conservatives feel about the agreement? They were the ones who scuttled any last-minute deals before the October government shutdown. Would shooting down this deal be another chance for them to flex their muscles in Congress? Early indications are they may try.

"Some are heralding the agreement as an indication politicians can put aside their petty differences and achieve something," writes the Michael A Needham, head of the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action. "In the coming days, members of Congress will have to explain to their constituents what exactly they achieved by increasing spending, increasing fees and offering up another round of promises waiting to be broken."

"The Democrats hated the sequester, and have been trying to bust it ever since it went into effect," writes John Hinderaker in the blog Powerline. "Today, they succeeded."

Whether right-wing opposition will be enough to overcome the support for the deal by both Democratic and Republican leadership remains to be seen. But one thing that's not open to debate is the size of the deal. It's small. And its smallness, writes New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, is a condemnation of Washington politics today:

Optimists are presenting the very small budget deal agreed to by both parties as a new day in Washington, a down payment that can clear the way for further dealing down the road. In truth, it's the end of the road, a small salvage operation for a grand failure of governance and political strategy stretching over three years.