The best budget deal a polarized Congress could make

After the ineptitude and intransigence on display in October's government shutdown, congressional leaders had nowhere to go but up. And so they have, modestly. Top members of the House and Senate budget committees struck a deal this week that would set funding limits for the federal government through September 2015, averting some cuts to defense and domestic priorities without increasing the deficit. Although the details are disappointing, it's noteworthy and welcome that a leading Senate liberal and a House conservative found a common path forward, even if it's not an ambitious one.

The deal negotiated by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) isn't the long-sought "grand bargain" on spending, taxes and entitlements that would solve Washington's long-term fiscal woes. Instead, the proposal would solve only near-term problems. It would raise the sequester spending caps that even some Republicans fear could damage national defense and other vital programs. And it would lay the groundwork for Congress to pass the annual appropriations bills needed to keep the government open, reducing the risk of another debilitating shutdown early next year.

Some absolutist conservatives, having learned nothing from October's fiasco, lambasted Ryan and Murray for proposing to spend more than the sequester allowed — as if the sequester were the goal, not a clumsy means to an end. And even if Congress approves the Ryan-Murray deal, recent history suggests that the agreement won't stop the fiscal squabbling between the two parties. Republicans will almost certainly press for more cuts in the annual spending bills, as they did after Congress enacted a budget deal in 2011. They'll do the same when the debt limit needs to be raised again in a few months to avoid a federal default — an increase that many members will resist even after they vote for the deficit spending in this deal. Meanwhile, the two sides will continue to clash over the big issues the deal sidestepped, such as how to grow the economy faster, overhaul the tax code and slow the growth of entitlement spending.

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Nevertheless, Ryan and Murray deserve credit for finding a way to reconcile the wildly divergent budgets that the House and Senate adopted in March. The former would have balanced the budget in 10 years in part through severe restraints on Medicaid, Medicare and discretionary programs; the latter would have collected more taxes to get rid of the sequester and spend significantly more on infrastructure, research and education. None of that found its way into this agreement. And considering how many times lawmakers have negotiated in vain for a grand bargain, this much more circumspect deal might be the most anyone could expect out of such a polarized Congress.

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