Congress - finally! - averts fiscal crisis with time to spare

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., applauds after handing the gavel to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was re-elected as House Speaker of the 113th Congress, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
AP Photo / Susan Walsh

Marking a moment of almost unprecedented bipartisanship in Congress, the House today passed a short-term budget bill aimed at funding the government through the end of September - with a whole six days to go before the federal government is slated to shut down.

In a bipartisan vote of 318-109, the bill, which originated in the House but was amended by the Senate, will now go to the president's desk for a signature. And for the first time in recent memory, there will ne no late-night, 11th-hour negotiations to stave off a government shutdown and avert a fiscal crisis. At least for the time being.

"It's a good day for the American people," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a press conference shortly after the bill was approved.

Now, both parties will move forward with ongoing negotiations over their separate - and exceptionally distinct - full-year budget proposals, as well with negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, which will require action this spring.

This morning, shortly before passing the stopgap spending measure, House Republicans passed their 2014 budget proposal, a controversial plan that overhauls the nation's Medicare program and balances the budget over the course of 10 years. Democrats, who fiercely oppose this plan, are expected to pass their own budget proposal in the Senate by the end of this week. Theirs repeals the sequester and seeks $1.85 trillion worth of savings over 10 years through an equal combination of tax revenue increases and spending cuts.

Despite the seemingly epic gulf between the two parties' plans, both sides insist they're serious about passing a full-year, congressionally-negotiated 2014 fiscal budget, and are expected to hunker down for those talks after the coming two-week recess, even while they continue to lambast the other side's plan.

"As we look at what we need to do here in the budget, I was appalled, first of all, to see what the Ryan budget did," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in remarks today on the Senate floor. "Women across America have to balance their family budgets. They know America also has to get its fiscal act together. But the entire Ryan budget places the whole burden of drawing down our public debt on discretionary spending, preserves tax breaks and tax earmarks, and further squeezes those fiscal priorities that impact women and children, impact education, impact empowerment. And i think what we have to offer here offers a far greater vision."

Whether the parties' newfound willingness to act serious about working together - that the process will bear fruit still seems dubious - is a product of the president's recent GOP charm offensive or an overriding exhaustion with a strategy the White House has criticized as an endless cycle of "manufactured crises," is hard to say. Certainly, recent polls suggest that Congress's ongoing inability to work with each other hasn't done its members many favors in the realm of popular opinion.

A CBS News poll from earlier this month showed that more than 70 percent of voters want both Republicans and Democrats to compromise on ongoing budget battles like spending cuts and the sequester. The same poll showed that Republicans in Congress are bearing more of the blame than Democrats. Meanwhile, a recent poll from CNN/ORC showed Boehner in the red when it comes to favorability: 39 percent of voters view him unfavorably, and 34 percent view him in a favorable light. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had a bigger gap: 38 percent viewed him unfavorably, compared to just 23 percent who viewed him favorably. (According to this survey, Reid is substantially less well-known than Boehner: 27 percent said they'd never heard of him, compared with 17 percent who said the same of the Ohio Republican.)

The next test for Congress comes in May on whether or not they can come up with a plan for raising the debt ceiling without taking the nation to the brink of a credit default - as had happened in August of 2011, and which led to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating.

At this point, though, the prospects for another swift - and relatively painless - compromise are looking dim.

Boehner suggested Republicans will seek a "dollar for dollar" plan in negotiations over the debt ceiling, an idea that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shot down in a subsequent briefing of her own.

"I you keep saying dollar for dollar, pretty soon you have very little in terms of public space ...for cops on the beat to see what's going on on Wall Street, for clean air, clean water, food safety, public safety, public just keeps unraveling and unraveling and that is their point," she told reporters, also taking a swipe at what she called the GOP's "Romney"-inspired budget.

"It's about being handmaidens for the special interests," she said. "It's about having a revenue policy that is not about fairness, but about special interests and I think that is a sharp contrast."

As much as establishment leaders want to avoid a repeat of the 2011 debt ceiling battle, some conservative lawmakers are already digging their heels in for an ideological fight on the issue.

"We have got to start addressing the mandatory side of the spending equation, and I think we would probably do that in the debt ceiling debate," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., told reporters yesterday.