An ugly budget deal but a deal

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was right. If the tea party were to brave a government shutdown in a bid to defund Obamacare, the stout of heart would prevail, and wobbly partisans would run for cover.

Unfortunately for the GOP, Cruz was right about the wrong party. The 16-day partial shutdown in October hurt Republicans, who folded because they never had the votes to sustain it. As polls showed voters blaming Republicans, Democrats emerged secure in the knowledge that the next budget negotiations would be a win-win. Democrats could win by forcing a deal that increased spending. If that failed, they could win another shutdown.

Ergo, the two-year Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 announced Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It’s an ugly deal — if the best deal opposing forces could forge.

Before the shutdown, those Republicans who could count believed that the smart GOP objective would be to maintain the sequester cuts in full. But with Democrats in a “go ahead, make my day” state of mind, Ryan went for sequester lite. “In divided government, you don’t always get what you want,” he said Tuesday.

Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, annual discretionary spending was supposed to be capped at $967 billion in 2014. Under the Ryan-Murray deal, discretionary spending would be $1.01 trillion next year; essentially, the deal splits the difference between House and Senate budget bills. Fiscal hawks had to give up about $63 billion of hard-fought sequester cuts that were part of the 2011 budget bill.

Democrats won their main objective: They sliced the 2011 sequester spending cuts. In return, they gave up their bid to extend unemployment insurance benefits and agreed to a modest increase in federal employee and military pension contributions.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, who likely will vote no, told CNN that the problem with compromise is that whenever Democrats and Republicans reach a deal, spending goes up. Never down.

It’s disappointing that Ryan and Murray couldn’t come together to pass much-needed entitlement reform — the biggest driver in Washington’s unsustainable deficit spending. Also disappointing: They didn’t agree to meaningful (as opposed to token) cuts in corporate welfare and farm pork. There’s the usual gimmickry — such as putting off the big cuts into the future.

Ryan was able to argue that the House-Senate deal wouldn’t raise taxes, because instead it would increase fees, including airline ticket fees. Technically, he’s right.

Ryan and Murray claim $23 billion in savings by extending cuts to Medicare providers through 2023. Given that Congress routinely overrides those paper cuts with a “doc fix,” that claim is so phony. Bill Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which applauds the deal, conceded, “It just adds more complexity to what’s already a complex reimbursement scheme for the providers.”

Groups such as the Club for Growth urge Republicans to vote no because Ryan-Murray would increase spending. Who cares what they say? They led the GOP into a “box canyon” for an unwinnable stunt. So now a bad compromise looks like a godsend.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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