A stern-faced Barack Obama bluntly chastised Congress on the “unnecessary” damage done to America’s prestige and to its economy by the budget and debt ceiling stand-off that was only resolved late Thursday night and lectured members on stopping their habit of treating government “as an enemy”.
“Let’s be clear, there are no winners here ,” said Mr Obama, who just after midnight had signed the frantically negotiated stop-gap bill to re-open America’s shuttered government and give the US Treasury the authority to begin borrowing again. “The American people are completely fed up with Washington.”
Barely was the president’s ink dry on the bill ending the October agony than the four members of a bi-partisan committee created by it to try to seek by 13 December a long-term solution to America’s spending priorities had a first meeting amid public expressions of optimism but private feelings of dread that its fate will be the same of so many committees before it: deadlock, followed by more dysfunction.
Headed by two members of the Senate and two members of the House from each of the parties – Senator Patty Marray and Rep. Chris Van Hollen for the Democrats and Senator Jeff Sessions and Rep. Paul Ryan for the Republicans – the purpose of the committee is to bridge the gap between draft budgets that their respective chambers put forward earlier this year but which are separated by more than $90 billion in spending over the fiscal year.
With their breakfast gathering, the four members seemed intent on sending the message that Congress – as Mr Obama was later to demand – was putting the stand-off behind it and resuming its usual responsibilities.
“Let’s understand what we’re doing here, we’re going back to regular order,” Mr Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, told reporters. “This is the budget process… This is how the founders envisioned the budget process. We want to get back to that. We haven’t had a budget conference since 2009 and we so think it’s high time we start talking together trying to reconcile our differences.”
But then Mr Ryan, who has a chance to rebuild a standing that has slipped since he ran as number two on the Republican ticket last year, added: “It’s premature to get into exactly how we’re going to do that.”
No sooner will the hangover of the last weeks clear in Washington than reality will set in that the bill signed by Mr Obama is a reprieve and nothing more. If Mr Ryan and his colleagues are not seen to make some progress quickly fear will return that extremists in both parties will dig in. Thursday’s truce extends the borrowing authority only until 7 February and provides money for the budget only until mid-January.
But what ails Washington is more than the just wide span of ideological differences. It is also about the sheer difficulty of finding a way to address what almost everyone – Mr Obama and the Democrats included – recognises must be addressed, getting control of spending and deficits over the long term, when one side is simply dead set against raising taxes and the other side is similarly unable to countenance any serious curtailing of government service and paring of the safety net, notably in social security and Medicare.
Making things worse, as ever, are the powerful lobby groups in town that threaten political oblivion to politicians who don’t heed them. This is especially so for Republicans often less in fear of Democrat challengers in their districts – the mid-term congressional races are now less than a year away – than of more extreme members of their own party preparing to challenge them in the primaries that come first.
It was Heritage Action, a right wing action group in Washington, warning conservative Republicans not to support a version of a bill to end the stand-off tabled by speaker John Boehner – and saying it would identify them if they did so when they ran for re-election – that led to it falling apart on Tuesday night. The result: the Senate stepped in with its bill that achieved even less of what conservatives were seeking.
In these circumstances, any words, however wise, from Mr Obama on the need for more bi-partisanship is unlikely to have any real impact. But, standing in the state dining room in the White House, he delivered them anyway. “Understand that how business is done in this town has to change,” he said. “Let’s work together to make government work better instead of treating it as enemy or purposefully making it worse.”
Ms Murray nonetheless said it would be job of the newly created committee to try. “Chairman Ryan knows I’m not going to vote for his budget, and I know he’s not going to vote for mine,” she said at a press conference. “We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on and that’s our goal.”
While there was global relief that the immediate crisis was over, China’s official Xihhau news agency saw only further dysfunction ahead, declaring the deal merely makes “the fuse of the US debt bomb one inch longer.” In another of its increasingly scathing editorials about American political deadlock it added: “Politicians in Washington have done nothing substantial but postponing once again the final bankruptcy of global confidence in the US financial system and the intactness of dollar investment”.
Federal workers return to posts
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers headed back to work in the Washington area after a 16-day government shutdown that barricaded national parks and monuments; halted programmes serving veterans and cancer patients; and cast an unnatural quiet onto America’s capital city.
When the Metrorail system opened, eight-car-long trains were once again in use after two weeks of six-car trains because of a decline in federal commuters.
The World War II Memorial was quiet save for a handful of cameramen, an occasional jogger and Adam Schwartz, who waded through the pool of water at the centre, sweeping the bottom clean with a broom.
Mr Schwartz had not been authorised to clean the pool during the shutdown. He began work at 6am, scooping leaves and dirt from the water. “The key is to make it crystal clear again,” Mr Schwartz said. “For the veterans.”
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