A deal will reopen government and avert a default on U.S. debt
Julian Zelizer: Some have argued the deal is a total Democratic win
He says the reality is GOP can continue to make budget cutting dominant issue in Washington
Zelizer: GOP can use same tactics in 2014 to force Obama to focus on their concerns
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “Governing America.”
With no time left on the clock, members of Congress finally reached a deal that would reopen the federal government and raise the debt ceiling.
As the world watched Congress stumble and tumble toward the brink of default, Senate Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on a deal that gained enough support in the House to bring this episode to a close.
Some Democrats and pundits have concluded that Democrats are walking away the victors. They correctly argue that the Republican Party has become so damaged in the polls as a result of their hardball tactics that they are extremely vulnerable in the 2014 midterms and could very well suffer in the presidential election of 2016 as a result of these debates.
President Barack Obama also walks away from this deal with the Affordable Care Act generally intact, as conservative proposals to repeal the program recede further and further away from political reality. In 2011, when threatened with the debt ceiling, Obama conceded to Republican demands by agreeing to the 2011 Budget Control Act. This time he refused to negotiate.
But can Democrats really claim victory? Not really.
As the dust settles, Republicans might find themselves pretty content with the outcome of this battle. In terms of public policy, they have kept the President on the defensive and kept their main issue front and center.
Throughout much of the past month and a half, when the President hoped to return from the congressional recess to push the immigration bill through the House, all attention has centered on sequestration, repealing the Affordable Care Act, cutting spending and avoiding fiscal catastrophe.
All of the other energy has been sucked out of Washington. Even with the current deal, the sequestration remains in effect, severely harming government agencies that have undergone cuts as well as those in desperate need of funding increases.
Congress and the administration will now embark on more extensive discussions about budget reform that will consume the attention of both parties until the middle of January. For now, sequestration remains in place, leaving many agencies with insufficient funds.
The battle has also been beneficial to Republicans in that they have continued the process of normalizing the use of radical tactics in pushing for cuts to the federal government.
Just as many Americans seemed to accept sequestration, conservative Republicans have not yet felt any serious political threat as a result of their having forced a government shutdown.
Nor is it clear that there will be any negative consequences to them for having gone to the brink of a federal default in their fight for concessions on the budget deal. If they are left standing, there is little reason to think that they won’t use these tactics once again. The last month offers them a template.
Furthermore, the current deal simply postpones any decision and actually sets up another round of fights when Congress returns from its winter break in December. The new year will look very much like the one that came before.
Given the pattern we have seen, conservative Republicans will be just as likely, even more likely, to employ the same kind of aggressive tactics and try to force the administration into accepting deep cuts in domestic spending if Obama wants to keep the economy in stable condition.
Conservatives will be even more emboldened as they seek to please their constituents going into the 2014 midterm elections. The deal that emerged from the Senate is simply a continuation of the kind of political chaos that we have witnessed since the 2010 midterms. Obama will have to start fighting on this issue as soon as the ink is dry.
Obama has spent much of his second term on defense, responding to pressure from House Republicans to cut spending and trying to combat their use of radical procedural weapons.
This crisis was clearly the most dangerous moment for the country. And it is true that Obama and congressional Democrats walk away having achieved important objectives. After all, the government is up and running again, at least for the time being, and Congress has raised the debt ceiling, thereby averting a global meltdown.
But Republicans have defined the national agenda and forced a deal that doesn’t resolve debate. Just the opposite: It ensures that the fights will continue and the threat of default continues into the foreseeable future.
Until Democrats find a way to reach some kind of long-term budget accord by building sufficient pressure – and electoral support – to push back against the Republican Right, they’ll find themselves on the losing side of this issue over and over again.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer