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5 Things We Learned From The Budget Debate

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., takes a break from the Senate floor Tuesday after a bipartisan budget compromise cleared a procedural hurdle.
J. Scott Applewhite
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., takes a break from the Senate floor Tuesday after a bipartisan budget compromise cleared a procedural hurdle.

Now that the bipartisan budget agreement has passed the Senate and is headed for the president's desk, it's a good time to consider some of the takeaways from the past two weeks of congressional Sturm und Drang.

Here are five:

Congress still works, sort of.

Congress is capable of doing a federal budget the good-old fashioned way, which is also known as the regular order. Who knew? The last time that happened under a divided government with Democrats and Republicans each controlling a chamber in 1986, Ronald Reagan was still president. So we can be forgiven for our doubts it would ever happen again. Of course, it took a government shutdown and the threat of a default by the U.S. Treasury to get there, but Congress finally did. Still, we shouldn't celebrate too much. This is the way Congress is supposed to work.

Compromise happens.

Both sides had to give up something to get a deal that could pass both houses. As part of a final pact, Democrats accepted a provision that requires newly hired federal workers to contribute more to their retirement accounts. Republicans accepted a change whose result will be slightly lower military pension benefits for early retirees. Both sides wound up splitting the difference to reach the ultimate discretionary spending level of $1.012 trillion for fiscal 2014 and somewhat higher amounts for the following two fiscal years. Democrats initial "ask" was for $45 billion more for next year; Republicans, $45 billion less. Who said compromise was dead in Washington?

Well, it appears dead on taxes and entitlements.

While the budget agreement takes a government shutdown off the table for two years, it does so without tackling the major drivers of the nation's worsening fiscal prospects — entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Those are nonnegotiable for Democrats so long as Republicans refuse to consider higher taxes, and Republicans, so far, aren't going there. Even so, the agreement is being hailed as a much-needed confidence builder between the two parties. Of course, viewed cynically, it's just further proof that Washington still mainly operates on the principle of not doing the tough stuff today that can be kicked down the road until tomorrow.

Paul Ryan's the man.

In the modern era, being your party's losing vice presidential nominee often means a loss of stature in Washington. But Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has managed to enhance his position in his party after the defeat of the 2012 GOP presidential ticket he shared with Mitt Romney. The loss hasn't stuck. Thus it was Ryan who inserted himself at a critical point during the government shutdown and offered his party a path off the ledge. The trust House Republicans accord Ryan resulted in nearly three-quarters of them voting for the agreement he negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. That's no mean feat these days.

Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins tempt the Tea Party.

Nearly all of the 12 Senate Republicans facing re-election in 2014 voted the same way on the procedural question of whether to allow the Murray-Ryan budget bill to proceed to a floor vote — no. The two exceptions were Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. That could be considered gutsy in an environment in which Tea Party candidates will primary, at the drop of a tricorn hat, any incumbent Republican deemed insufficiently conservative. But lest anyone think Alexander was going wobbly, he said when the actual bill comes up for a floor vote, he'll vote against it, since it doesn't slow entitlement spending.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.