By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), addressing the cameras after his weekly meeting with House Republicans, was his usual, courtly self Wednesday morning — until Nancy Cordes of CBS News found her way under his tanned skin.
“Mr. Speaker, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal,” she said of the compromise that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., reached Tuesday night with Senate Democrats.
Boehner interrupted her. “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” he asked.
“Yes, those groups,” she said.
Boehner raised his voice. “They — they’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” he said. “This is ridiculous!”
Yes, it is. And the fact that Republicans finally realize it means that Ryan’s budget compromise can be called a success, even if it accomplishes little else.
Much is wrong with the deal to fund the government for the next 21 months. It does nothing to address Medicare and Social Security, which are the long-term problems threatening the nation’s finances. It doesn’t change the inefficient and illogical tax code. It doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, and it doesn’t even fully replace the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which is what negotiators had set out to do in the first place. Essentially, lawmakers reached agreement by jettisoning everything consequential.
And yet Ryan achieved something monumental: He persuaded his fellow conservatives to compromise, even though they are under pressure to oppose the pact from powerful groups such as Club for Growth, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity that oust Republicans in primaries if they are insufficiently doctrinaire. (The Washington Post reported Wednesday that conservative lawmakers fired a staffer who had been working with outside groups to build opposition to Ryan’s agreement.)
This should give the public, and the markets, a modicum of reassurance that Washington can still handle the simple task of keeping the government running. And this first-time willingness among conservatives to buck the ideological purity police is a small ray of hope that their bravery will repeat itself on other occasions.
“I’m one of the most conservative of the caucus, and I’m leaning yes on this,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., told reporters in a Capitol basement corridor after leaving the House Republicans’ meeting. “I’m not sure that the outside groups are going to be able to influence us away from what really is a good step in the right direction.”
Fleming, among the tea party faithful in the House, said he didn’t hear “any major objections” among colleagues. “We’ve actually found a compromise that does not assault the values of either side,” he said.
Certainly, not all of the sans-culottes in the Republican-led House were pacified. “It’s an incredibly small baby step. I’m likely to vote against it,” announced Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. “We did nothing on Social Security and Medicare.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., likewise, called it a “typical” Washington deal, saying, “It’s going to increase the deficit, it’s going to raise taxes and fees and it’s not going to address the long-term overspending problem in Washington.”
But the agreement returns discretionary spending to 2007 levels in 2015, it gives at least lip service to reducing entitlement spending, and it softens the worst effects of the sequester cuts. Above all, it’s going to restore a sense that Congress can handle the most basic functions of writing budgets and paying bills. That’s not saying much, yet it’s a significant improvement on the way things have been done in recent years.
“We’ve got to find a way to make this divided government work,” Ryan said Wednesday morning, standing with Boehner and other House GOP leaders. “We understand in this divided government, we’re not going to get everything we want.”
The conclusion would seem obvious. But for Ryan, a profile in intransigence the last several years, this was a major change. And some of the most ardent conservatives were swayed by the former vice presidential nominee.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Ryan told the Republicans “a great story about what we are trying to accomplish on behalf of the American people … making sure the American people understand that we have adults in Washington who can deal with big problems.”
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said that with their compromise, Republicans “are showing the American people we have the capacity for governance.”
But what about the obsession with repealing Obamacare above all else?
“Not even mentioned,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
Such reasonableness almost certainly will not last. But let’s savor the moment.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.