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Editorial: A cease fire in spending wars

A view of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

A view of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Oct. 3, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The House of Representatives' overwhelming approval of a bipartisan budget deal last week marked a startling cease fire in the war over spending and taxes that had the government careening from crisis to crisis for two dysfunctional years.

The breakthrough was possible because Republican congressional leaders finally decided to lead. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and their allies wrested control of the party from an uncompromising, hard-right minority that had recklessly pushed it to shut down the government and dangerously flirted with default on the nation's obligations.

Congress had reached such a sad nadir that even the modest deal was a remarkable bit of good news for the nation. It set the amount the government will spend on domestic programs and the military at $1.012 trillion in 2014 -- splitting the difference between the $967 billion sought by the Republican House and $1.058 trillion Senate Democrats preferred -- with a slight increase to $1.014 trillion in 2015.

Ordinarily that would be an unremarkable compromise. But these are no ordinary times.

Conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action and Club for Growth howled in opposition, some even before the deal was unveiled. Fortunately, this time Republican leaders slapped back.

"Frankly, I just think they've lost all credibility," Boehner said. "They are using our members and they are using the American people for their own goals."

If the Senate approves the deal this week, as it should, it will spare the public another government shutdown looming in January, end some blunt across-the-board spending cuts, shave deficits and signal a return to rational budgeting. In other words, Congress would be doing its job, which these days would qualify as a remarkable achievement. As with all compromise, neither party is completely happy with the deal.

Some Republicans don't like that it would increase spending, or that immediate spending cuts were swapped for illusory Medicare cuts 10 years down the road. But the budget's $23 billion in deficit reduction, relief from military spending cuts and lack of new taxes should help make the case for Republican support in the Senate. And rather than reminding voters of the recent showdowns that pushed the party's approval rating into a black hole, a budget truce would allow the GOP to keep the focus on Obamacare's troubled rollout.

Some Democrats don't like that new federal employees would contribute more to their pensions to help offset spending increases, that federal unemployment benefits would expire at the end of the year and that no corporate tax loopholes would be closed. But the deal would increase spending Democrats favor on programs such as education, medical research and Head Start. And budget peace would free them to advance other priorities such as immigration reform.

Republicans should tune out the noise from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other tea party favorites and join with Democrats to approve the deal. Then they should use the budget calm to simplify the tax code, shore up Medicare and Social Security, and create the conditions for economic growth and more jobs.

Now that would really be remarkable.

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