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Budget deal a small, flawed breakthrough

The budget agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators this week was a startlingly quiet Washington achievement. It wasn’t preceded by political sniping and threats of government shutdown. It didn’t arrive with dueling partisan news conferences.

Instead, the unveiling came in a polite, bipartisan, non-prime time announcement by wonkish Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and slightly-less-wonkish Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. It might have been, one pundit declared, “The single most boring political event of 2013.”

Good. We’ve had our fill of budget “excitement” this year.

Granted, as far as achievements go, the Ryan-Murray deal was far from extraordinary. It provides only some relief from the blunt, irresponsible sequester, replacing half of its cuts to defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending in 2014, and only a quarter in 2015. The agreement also takes a pass on tax reform, substantial deficit reduction and addressing runaway spending on entitlements. Those remain critical issues for the country’s fiscal future.

What’s notable, however, are the other things that were absent from the agreement. Unlike previous budget deals – or even speculation about budget deals – the Ryan-Murray agreement wasn’t met with a chorus of “dead on arrival” from conservative House Republicans. In fact, the deal is expected to reach the House floor Thursday, a signal that Republican leaders are confident it has enough support to pass.

Even more noteworthy was House Speaker John Boehner’s willingness to criticize conservative groups that opposed the budget deal. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” he told reporters Wednesday. “This is ridiculous.”

Those are promising signs that Republicans understand the political damage done by the far right bringing Washington to a figurative and almost literal halt, including a partial government shutdown over a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t hurt, from the GOP’s perspective, that the quiet deal also keeps the public’s attention on Obamacare’s early struggles rather than another bruising fiscal battle.

Instead, the Ryan-Murray deal would finance the government – and put off the next budget fight – until September 2015. (Remember, though, that Congress still faces the contentious task of raising the debt ceiling in the spring of 2014.)

But this week’s deal shows that this divided Congress has the ability to reach a compromise, however small or flawed it might be. It sends the encouraging message that Republicans are not only capable of working across the aisle for a budget agreement, but standing up to the obstructionist voices that have spoken for the party in recent debates.

We won’t pretend that House leaders are rediscovering their backbones solely because it’s better for the country. We’ll settle for their realization that the majority of Americans want their elected representatives to engage in the difficult task of negotiating rather than the easy politics of saying no.

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