Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Over the cliff, but no crash

This fiscal cliff deal passed. That's the big thing. Had it not passed, the U.S. economy, indeed, the world's stock markets, would have been devastated. But there is something more here — something that might even raise a glimmer of hope for the future.

The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 89-8. Both Democrats and Republicans were among the eight, but the overwhelming majority included most members of both parties. It was one of the most impressive displays of bipartisan agreement this Congress has seen.

Things did not go quite so smoothly in the House, but the deal passed by a margin of 257-157. That's a comfortable margin by most standards, but the significant element here is that Speaker of the House John Boehner put aside Republican doctrine and brought the bill up for a vote despite the fact that the party caucus had opposed the bill. Until last night, the speaker had refused to bring a bill to the floor unless a majority of the GOP members were in favor of the bill. The more conservative members of the House refused to go along with the bill, which they complained gave no spending cuts in return for the higher tax rates on 1 percent of Americans. They complained that the bill actually increased deficits by $4 trillion (but only compared to what spending would have been if all Bush-era tax cuts were allowed to expire).

Boehner's decision to bring the bill to a vote, despite his own party's opposition was a heroic act, and like all heroic acts, this one carried risks. It is possible that conservative GOP members will seek revenge on Boehner tomorrow, when the House reorganizes and elects a new speaker. The Ohio congressman's decision to allow bipartisanship to trump party politics could cost him his office.

The potential reward is that Boehner's decision could set a new precedent, one in which one party is not allowed to bottle up legislation favored by the moderate wings of both parties. If that happens, the 113th Congress might actually accomplish some things and address some long-ignored problems.

But that would probably be expecting too much.

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