A thaw in Washington?

Any hope that Congress is putting partisan squabbles aside to move the country forward on important issues needs to be confirmed with solid proof

Feb 16, 2014 @ 12:01 am

Any financial adviser worth his or her salt would ask for proof before buying the latest whiz-bang technology platform or getting a client into the newest market-beating investment.

Similarly, any hope that Congress is putting partisan squabbles aside to move the country forward on important issues needs to be confirmed with solid proof.

So the question is: Was last week's congressional deal to lift the U.S. debt limit without conditions proof enough that the partisan ice in Washington is beginning to thaw?

Last Wednesday, the House voted 221-201 to suspend the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, a move that the Senate later echoed in its 55-43 vote that sent the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Good news.

For one thing, pushing the debt ceiling out 13 months means that the government can continue to pay its bills without resorting to extraordinary means or risk defaulting on its debt obligations. That has the effect of giving investors one less issue to fret about. It also means that for this year, at least, legislators won't be tying measures they know have no hope in a divided Congress to a debt ceiling bill, which would effectively make such a bill a nonstarter.


And the fact that six weeks into the new year, the country has not teetered on the brink of a fiscal cliff or the government hasn't shut down are positive signs.

But excavating behind the facade of the burgeoning fiscal harmony that followed last week's debt ceiling bill passage finds that little has changed. And that's unfortunate.

Indeed, while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dropped his demands that any debt limit increase bills come with equivalent spending cuts, the debt ceiling vote showed virtually no bipartisanship. (Mr. Boehner had already dropped any pretense of working with Democrats or the administration on immigration reform.)

In the Senate last week, the big news was that Republicans and Democrats struck a “deal” in which 12 Republicans agreed to vote with all 55 Democrats in favor of taking an immediate vote on passing the debt ceiling bill. But once that deal passed, the 12 moved right back to their own side and the bill passed along strict party lines, 55-43.

For their part, Democrats have indicated they're going to push for raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration and restoring long-term unemployment benefits. On the other side, Republicans are likely to continue to seek to limit Obamacare.

So it appears that any hoped-for thaw is about as real as an end to the interminable winter much of the country is suffering from. The difference, however, is that while we know spring will come, in Washington — though any forward movement is good news — we would have hoped for more.


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