Finally, the grown-ups have taken back control of Capitol Hill. The question now is whether they can keep it.
The passage of a modest bipartisan budget plan shows that Congress can occasionally function on a reasonably effective level. That’s a low bar, of course. But for the last few years, lawmakers have failed to meet even a minimum standard of competence.
The public has reacted to this dismal performance with appropriate disdain. The average favorability rating for Congress is 12.7 percent. In a recent Gallup poll, only 8 percent gave Congress good marks for honesty and ethics, just below car salesmen.
Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, had it exactly right when he said that “voters want problem-solvers, not partisan warriors.”
But the “problem-solvers” who forged the budget deal will be under fierce attack from the “partisan warriors” when Congress returns in January to face a host of critical issues: renewing food stamps, raising the debt ceiling and resolving the status of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The spirit of compromise that sparked to life this past week is still very weak. It will take strong leaders and political savvy to keep it burning in the new year.
Leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat, who handcrafted the budget deal. They did what practical legislators should do. They actually listened to each other. They emphasized what united them instead of what divided them. They placed the national interest over partisan advantage.
“This deal is a compromise,” said Murray. “(It) takes the first steps towards rebuilding our broken budget process and hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress.” Added Ryan: “This is good government; it’s also divided government. And under divided government, we need to take steps in the right direction.”
They might seem like an odd couple, but both lawmakers come by their pragmatism honestly. Ryan worked for the late Jack Kemp, a classic “big tent” Republican who loved to joke that as a professional football player, he took showers every day with the kinds of folks “most Republicans never meet.”
Murray originally got into politics as a volunteer, organizing to preserve a local preschool program. After 21 years, she is the fourth most senior woman in the Senate (out of 20), and female lawmakers from both parties have always fostered relationships that bridge partisan differences.
Building on the Murray-Ryan deal will also require House Speaker John Boehner to continue his courageous campaign against the outside ideologues who have repeatedly torpedoed his efforts to work with President Obama and Congressional Democrats.
Boehner is a professional legislator who finally exploded in anger at conservative agitators — from groups like Heritage Action and Freedom Works — who automatically condemned the budget deal before they’d even read it.
“Frankly, I think they’re misleading their followers,” he thundered. “And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
Boehner spoke for many Republicans who fear the tea party and its acolytes are pushing the GOP into a disastrous dead end. Some are following the speaker’s lead, expressing resentments that have simmered for years — and finally boiled over.
Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, for example, told “Morning Joe” on MSNBC: “You have people on our side of the aisle that have a really abrasive tone. We can come across as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals on occasion.”
Conservative commentator Linda Chavez, who worked in the Reagan White House, denounced the “kamikaze wing” of her own party. The budget deal was “far from ... perfect,” she wrote. “But it is the best that could get passed in this Congress, and to claim otherwise is wishful thinking of the type that shuttered the government in October.”
One key player could be Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate’s senior Republican, who has long prided himself on working with Democrats like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. In 2010, Hatch’s Senate colleague Bob Bennett was ousted from office because of his moderate heresies, and Hatch himself had to overcome a right-wing primary opponent in 2012.
Hatch was clearly intimidated by those challenges for a while, but now seems ready to resume his bipartisan efforts. The Murray-Ryan pact was not “everything I’d hope it would be,” he admitted. “But sometimes the answer has to be yes.”
The country needs more lawmakers who say yes, not no. Murray-Ryan is a small deal in terms of budget priorities. But if it leads to more bipartisan cooperation, if it helps fix “our broken Congress,” it could turn out to be a large achievement indeed.