Congress Looks Ahead After Landmark Budget Deal

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After weeks of bickering over the 2011 budget, when it finally came time to cast ballots nobody seemed quite sure what to do. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the man tasked with coaxing his party into backing a bill neither side much liked, leaned against a table on the House floor, nervously jiggling a slip of paper. Freshman Rep. Allen West, a firm “no,” thumbed his Blackberry in the corner. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who moments before had cited Henry Clay — “If you can’t compromise, you can’t govern” — to urge the bill’s passage, circulated through the crowd, smiling and patting backs. Members squinted up at the voting board as it slowly lit with results.

Both sides can breathe a sigh of relief. HR 1473, which will keep the government open through Sept. 30 while trimming $38 billion from the federal budget, cleared the House this afternoon with bipartisan support, 260-167. Fifty-nine Republicans spurned their party to vote against the bill, while 81 of the House’s 193 Democrats supported it. Without them the bill, which later passed the Senate 81-19, would have failed.

It wasn’t an easy hurdle to clear. Even after Congressional leaders agreed to a framework Friday night, House Republican leaders had to sweat out rumors of a Republican revolt. In the last 24 hours, an unfavorable CBO estimate of the bill’s fiscal impact, criticism from both party’s flanks and fusillades from Tea Party groups and conservative commentators threatened to splinter the agreement’s supporters, forcing House Speaker John Boehner to appeal to members who might be suffering a case of buyer’s remorse. “Is it perfect? No. I’d be the first to admit that it’s flawed. Well, welcome to divided government,” Boehner said before the vote. “I’ll tell you that this is the best we could get.”

It took a patchwork coalition to nudge the measure across the finish line. By the Washington Post’s count, 79 Tea Party-endorsed members voted yes; 32 voted no. The majority of the GOP freshmen supported the bill. Republican defectors split into three distinct camps: the cost-cutting purists, among them many freshmen, who refused to accept a dollar less than the $61 billion they had sought; social conservatives unwilling to back the bill without policy riders that would have de-funded Planned Parenthood and “Obamacare”; and potential higher-office aspirants, who likely believed a “no” vote would burnish their conservative bona fides. “It’s just not good enough,” says Indiana’s Mike Pence, who was joined in this last group by conservatives like Michelle Bachmann and Jason Chaffetz.

In a snapshot of how the party is grappling with how to handle its turn in the minority, House Democratic leadership split over the measure. Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz backed the bill.  Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi—who was cut out of the negotiations and said she felt “no ownership” over the bill—voted against it, as did caucus chairman John Larson.

The landmark measure comes as Congress gears up for further spending fights over the 2012 budget and the federal debt ceiling. Its bipartisan passage provides a glimmer of hope that amid their endless mudslinging, the two parties will be able to find common ground in the fights ahead. At the same time, some Republicans were willing to bend on the 2011 budget largely because they were eager to move on to those battles, where they may be less willing to compromise on core principles. It would be a mistake, several members said, to assume that the resolution suggests similar ones can be reached in the coming months. But by the same token, “Just because I was a ‘no’ today doesn’t mean I’m going to be a ‘no’ on the [2012] budget, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to be a ‘no’ on the debt limit,” says freshmen Republican Bill Huizenga of Michigan, who said he needed to “put my vote where my mouth has been.”

After strolling off the House floor, freshmen Republican Mike Kelly, who supported the bill, called it “the first stop on a long journey.” Both sides were clearly eager to press ahead with that journey. “I just want this bill over with,” sighed a weary Hal Rogers, the House Appropriations Chair, in his closing statement before the vote. When it was gaveled to a close 20 minutes later, hardly anyone clapped. Within moments, they were arguing again.