Outlook still grim on Capitol Hill

Jan 3 2013 - 2:19pm

WASHINGTON -- "... And I'll be with you when the deal goes down" -- Bob Dylan. Well, the deal went down. Not with the finality of the poet's words, but long enough for Americans to take a short gulp of breath before facing the threat of an even worse calamity than the possibility of falling into the economic abyss just avoided.

A couple of short months from now the debt ceiling will have to be raised or once again the government will have to deal with another crisis -- defaulting on its financial obligations and shutting down. The president wanted to have that remedied in the compromise that saved most of us from a major tax increase and draconian cutbacks in spending. But it wasn't to be. Nor did the small solution adopted in the last hours of the year -- as is the legislature's historic pattern -- include much debt reduction or entitlement reform needed to solve a barge load of other fiscal problems that will keep us sweating throughout 2013 at least.

What Vice President Joe Biden was able to work out with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and then the GOP-controlled House was a temporary solution to our financial woes. No one down the avenue or up on Capitol Hill is satisfied -- not the liberals, not the conservatives and certainly not the president.

There is a ray of sunshine in all this. Something finally passed with a bipartisan vote. Does that portend for better things to come after four years of bickering and incivility? Probably not. However there are straws of hope to grasp, including the fact that for the first time in two decades Republicans supported a tax increase.

While the new levy on the wealthy is far less than Barack Obama sought --about half actually --it is something. Instead of getting hit squarely between the eyes if your adjusted gross income is $250,000 or above, you can now earn $450,000 before your rate goes up. That will produce new revenue way short of Obama's proposed $1.4 trillion.

One of the pluses may be that much of this was done in defiance of the GOP's self-anointed anti-tax guru, Grover Norquist, whose iron grip on the national Republican throat seems to have slipped a bit. Suddenly, enough Republicans apparently decided that it might be better to up the ante for the nation's 2 or 3 percent richest taxpayers than do so for the middle class. That seems like a politically astute decision -- so much for the Norquist pledge. Middle-class taxpayers will get a tax increase because the holiday on the payroll tax will end.

Now the president can be sworn in for his second term and the old Congress that has given us nothing but heartburn can be replaced almost immediately by the new, which isn't expected to be much different.

The next drama may come in the individual party caucuses. House Speaker John Boehner didn't look like King Kong in all this. He was shoved around by his own members as few men in his position have in anyone's memory. That resulted in the deal being struck with the Senate. He did manage to get the compromise through the House at the last minute, but his inability to bring about any consensus in the GOP caucus was not only embarrassing but also weakened his standing.

In his desperate attempt to avoid the fiscal disaster, Obama turned to Biden whose long experience on Capitol Hill gave him leverage the president himself lacked. Interestingly, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed not to have been heavily involved. That doesn't mean Reid is in danger of losing his party position, just that he may have lost a point or two in the power rating. McConnell, often derided as uncompromising, on the other hand gained new political respect for the time being at least.

There is nothing either new or surprising in what happened the last two months. Longtime observers of the congressional machinations have grown accustomed to the kind of crisis management with half-baked solutions that has become the hallmark of the legislative process.

More disturbing is the inevitability that it will continue.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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