U.S. deal is made

There was a collective sigh of relief as Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress agreed at the 11th hour on a deal that reopened the government and averted a debt default. The agreement represents a virtually complete victory for President Barack Obama, who held steady to his position refusing to negotiate with a gun to his head.

He is right. Extortion is no way to run a government. Unfortunately it is not clear if hardline Republicans have learned a lesson. The terms of the deal mean that they will have another chance in a few months to try to bring the president, the Democrats and the country to their knees.

As always the final hours of negotiation were messy. As Senate leaders from both parties looked set to strike a deal, House Republicans tried to pre-empt any compromise with a plan of their own. That gambit temporarily stalled the Senate talks.

Again, however, those GOP representatives were unable to agree among themselves, leaving a simple choice: the Senate proposal or default. Sensing that a default would be a mistake, the House GOP leadership abandoned its fealty to the Hastert rule — a self-imposed principle by which any legislation tabled by the GOP must enjoy a majority of the majority — and allowed a vote on the Senate proposal.

Having passed the Senate by a margin of 81-18 vote, the House followed by approving it 285 to 144. All dissenters were Republicans. Obama signed the bill just after midnight.

The final agreement funds the government until Jan. 15, 2014, and raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. In the interim, a bipartisan commission from both chambers will attempt to hammer out a larger budget deal that includes entitlement and tax code reform to provide long-term deficit reduction. The commission is to wrap up its work by Dec. 13 and then face a vote from the entire Congress.

Unfortunately it is precisely Congress’ inability to strike such a deal that put the U.S. in this position. Previous attempts to reach a grand bargain foundered on the GOP’s insistence that any plan that increased revenue was a nonstarter, yet another of their self-imposed rules. The failure to conclude such a deal produced the sequester — the across-the-board cuts in government spending that have been universally condemned as draconian.

Recall, too, that the sequester was intended to be painful. Therefore, it is reflective of the mindset in Washington that a solution that was intended to be punishment for failing to compromise is the new normal. In this environment, there is every likelihood of another bitter fight and another shutdown early next year when the next deadline occurs.

Until then, the two sides will try to find common ground. In theory, the damage done by this last fiasco should spur the parties to a deal. Mr. Obama has made it abundantly clear that his readiness to negotiate in 2011 to preclude a debt default was mistake that will not be repeated. He has insisted that he will not talk with a gun to his head and his actions indicated that this is not a bargaining position. His spine was stiffened by a united Democratic Party that rallied behind him, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who often played the “bad cop” in negotiations with Republicans.

Mr. Obama is right to insist that extortion is no way to run a government and that concessions in these circumstances will only cripple future presidents.

It is not clear what, if anything, Republicans have learned from this debacle. GOP popularity ratings have reached historical lows. The party is perceived as being responsible for the shutdown, ready to take the U.S. economy and, by extension, the world economy to the precipice, and as being more interested in photo opportunities than in the hardships imposed on ordinary Americans.

Many Republicans continue to dismiss the notion that a default will damage U.S. status and influence around the world. While GOP moderates acknowledge the damage done to their party’s image — and hope that memories will fade by the time of the 2014 midterm elections so that the party can retake control of the Senate — hardliners insist that the only problem is that they were not radical enough. They are already promising to hew to their former positions and push their “squishy” compatriots to hold the line.

The supreme irony in the recent crisis is that the GOP hardliners’ goal is rolling back the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislation intended to expand health care coverage in America.

Yet, their actions managed to overshadow a problematic rollout of the health care plan that would have reinforced the GOP’s message. Now they will regroup and decide who to blame for the public relations and political disaster.

After the 2012 elections, Mr. Obama had hoped that the “fever would break” and that Washington would return to normal order and establish principles of comity. Plainly he was wrong.

The questions remain: How many more times must the world watch the spectacle of lawmaker brinkmanship over the U.S. debt, and what it will take to silence the radicals? Ultimately, it is up to U.S. voters to stop this madness and demand accountability from their politicians. It is not too much to ask for.