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News Opinion Editorial

What's next for Washington?

Now that the debt limit has been raised, government workers are back to work and the proverbial budgetary can has been kicked a couple of months down the road, the obvious question is, what's next? After venting his spleen a bit over "manufactured crises" today, President Barack Obama offered three items for the congressional agenda — find a balanced approach to the budget, finish immigration reform and pass a farm bill.

Yes, they sound familiar and, of course, all three have been stuck in congressional gridlock and the odds of any one of them passing seems long, but — and not to be too Pollyannaish about this — they represent a good starting point. Indeed, it's entirely possible (if not probable) that this otherwise-disastrous strategy of Republicans to hold the government hostage over Obamacare might have actually improved the climate for negotiation.

That's because, as Mr. Obama observed, Washington has lost considerable credibility in the eyes of voters and the world. There is clearly a deficit of cooperation and of basic function. Such an embarrassing episode should motivate the nation's leaders to reject extremism and prove that traditional American-style democracy, the give and take of argument and debate, negotiation and compromise, is still alive and well. The tea party wing of the House GOP carried its confrontational strategy to the extreme and got nothing for it. The time may have come for a new tack.

Immigration reform? House Republicans need to embrace it (as a handful of Senate Republicans already have) out of simple political self-preservation as the nation's demographics continue to change. So must Democrats who can't afford to take the interest of Latino voters for granted. The farm bill has traditionally provided common ground before; it's only a matter of settling on a reasonable level of funding for food stamps.

That leaves the budget and the possibility of a "grand bargain," arguably the toughest lift of all. While, as the president also observed, short-term budget deficits are in historic decline, Congress needs take up the more significant long-term spending problem caused mostly by entitlements. This requires making decisions that promote both growth and fiscal responsibility, closing tax loopholes and cutting wasteful spending.

Why would the parties bridge that gap now after years of unrepentant opposition? First, they've actually been close to doing so before, and second, because their dysfunction is itself threatening to drag down the U.S. economy. Just as the parties came up with an 11th hour compromise over the debt limit, they'll need to compromise over their very own behavior. Rarely have voters had a greater appetite for moderation — or antipathy toward political bomb-throwing.

Republicans surely see the need to mend fences not only with the business community they so ignored in the showdown over the debt ceiling but also with voters who have never had a lower opinion of them.

Just has House Speaker John Boehner was a pivotal figure in the standoff of the last three weeks, so too might he be crucial in the prospects for all three matters the president mentioned. His indulgence of the extremists in the House GOP weakened him and his party, but the current situation offers him a chance for redemption. So far, the tea party wing of his caucus is standing by him after his decision Wednesday to put on the floor the Senate's bill to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling despite the opposition by a majority of his caucus. If he wants to demonstrate to the American public that he is a statesman and his party is capable of governance, he will need to take that path again.

President Obama pledged to look for common ground, too — while acknowledging there will continue to be large gaps in basic ideology between the political parties. He's offered such words before. More important is whether he'll prove himself willing to challenge his own party on these issues, particularly after the Democrats enjoyed such success with a "get tough" strategy in which they gave very little ground to opponents.

Cynics have plenty of reason to scoff, but it's not that difficult to envision progress being made on spending, immigration and the farm bill in the coming weeks. Surely, there's ample incentive on both sides to prove they are capable of governing the country, or at least not making matters worse. Call it the "fingers burned on a hot stove" theory — they've learned that nothing good comes from messing with the nation's government and credit rating, and perhaps a moderate course will be viewed as a reasonable alternative.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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