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Q: Hasn’t Obama been forced to compromise to raise the debt ceiling and open the government?
A: Not really. Obama is giving the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans — a promise to do a better job ensuring that people who report their income to get help buying health insurance under the health care law are actually reporting their income properly. There were already some assurances in the law, so all the president is promising is an additional layer of scrutiny.
Q: So is it all wonderful for Obama and Democrats?
A: No. The truth is that for all the drama, they’re getting little. They didn’t roll back the deep spending cuts known as the sequester that took effect this year and are eating away at domestic priorities such as education and research and development. They didn’t get new money to spend on jobs or an immigration bill. They got a political win. And they avoided an economic disaster.
Q: What happens next?
A: Under the agreement, both Republicans and Democrats would assign lawmakers to a committee to hash out a broader budget plan for the coming year. These joint efforts have not succeeded in the past, and we’ve gone years without a formal budget. But hope dies hard. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the basic question in the committee will be whether they find a way to roll back the sequester, which is set to launch a new round of budget cuts in January.
Democrats hate the sequester, because it’s basically the opposite of the vision of domestic investment they’ve long campaigned on. Republicans are more ambivalent, but there are many in the GOP who don’t like how deeply it cuts Pentagon spending. The most likely path to replacing part of the sequester is to make cuts to mandatory spending — such as health care programs or farm subsidies — instead.
A bigger budget deal — the elusive “grand bargain” — could also be considered as part of the conference. But any discussion of significant changes to mandatory spending usually leads Democrats to insist on new taxes, which has been a deal-breaker for the GOP.
Q: What happens if the committee fails to come to a deal and we’re back in January with new deadlines?
A: Most likely, neither side will want a new fight over government funding or the debt ceiling with midterm elections fast approaching. So they’ll just extend everything again and voters will decide what they want in November.