Deal shows neither GOP nor Democrats on firm footing

How divided are we these days? The budget deal announced Tuesday is hailed in some quarters for the mere fact Democrats and Republicans agreed on something before trying brinkmanship — and criticized elsewhere as revealing the two parties are all too similar in the end.

Here’s a different way to look at the deal: It shows what each party took from October, when congressional Republicans were pilloried for shutting down the government and Americans slowly realized the Obama administration had presented a lemon of a website as if it were a plum.

This deal tells us each party’s weakness is preventing it from capitalizing on the other side’s.

The GOP is taking heat from some conservatives for what Rep. Paul Ryan agreed to give up. He agreed to increase spending now (i.e., 2014-15) by about $65 billion, mostly in exchange for spending cuts that should have already happened (various fraud-prevention measures) or may never happen as scheduled (in 2022-23). The precedent is set for yielding on sequestration without receiving much in return.

At the same time, the left is angry about what Sen. Patty Murray didn’t get. She didn’t get any income-tax increases. Half the increased spending will go to the Pentagon, and the deal leaves in place — for now — the vast majority of sequestration cuts. While discretionary spending in 2014-15 will be higher than it was supposed to be under current law, it will still be lower each of the next four years than it was in 2011. Nor does the deal include yet another extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

Had Republicans not been seen as most responsible for the 16-day, partial shutdown of the federal government, they might have been in better position to hold their ground on total spending levels while shuffling the cuts more to their liking.

Had Democrats not been hammered for the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov, and for the blowback from Americans who were forced out of insurance plans President Obama promised they could keep, they might have been able to squeeze a lot more concessions on taxes and spending from the GOP.

But they are where they are. What does that mean for us?

It suggests balancing the budget, so we can start addressing our soaring debt, remains a distant possibility for now. Congress still wants us to believe deficit savings that are pushed mostly into future years will actually materialize when we get to those years.

It also suggests the notion that divided government would produce a “grand bargain,” in which Republicans and Democrats would hold hands and leap to their political deaths together, should be put to rest.

Tuesday’s deal is so small because there are so few changes the two parties agree on. There’s not a whole heck of a lot left to quibble about before they’re left to confront the big items: taxes and entitlements.

Maybe this deal builds trust between the two sides. Maybe it just burns up all the kindling without making anyone more willing to haul bigger logs to the fire pit.

Most of all, it suggests we’re still in a holding pattern in which each party tries to tip Washington’s balance of power in its favor.

Republicans will hope this helps burnish their credentials for governing while Obamacare weighs down Democrats, leading to a GOP Senate for the last two years of Obama’s presidency and some momentum heading into 2016.

The political benefits for Democrats are less obvious. They were in a weaker negotiating position because of the way Obamacare has hit them across the board, and they have to hope that blow subsides. If it does, they’ll take one last shot at winning the House and going on a left-wing legislating spree in 2015.

And so the stalemate continues. Given how far to the left Washington veered in 2009 and 2010, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

But considering how many problems remain on the horizon, it isn’t the best, either.