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Is Congress Able to Move On?

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bruising battle over the debt ceiling was a debate that “Washington very much needed to have.”

With President Barack Obama signing into law the $2.1 trillion debt deal Tuesday, the nation averted a historic default and might have cleared the way for a more productive Congress.

The larger sense in both parties was one of relief after the bruising partisan slugfest on the debt ceiling that had brought the nation’s other business to a virtual standstill.

While Congress wrestled with the debt ceiling, plenty of other issues languished — including energy, education reform, consideration of the war in Libya, trade deals and more — to the chagrin of rank-and-file lawmakers who spent much of the past few months waiting for a handful of leaders to hash out a deal.

“We have avoided default, but the drawn-out process has distracted us from other important issues, including ongoing military engagements, competitiveness in the global economy and job creation here at home,” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said. “It is time to start focusing on our true strategic interests.”

The battle brought the nation to the brink of an economic catastrophe and took a toll on the poll ratings of Congress and the president alike; all sides seemed eager to pivot to something else after the measure cleared its final hurdles Tuesday.

Most lawmakers declared their interest in focusing on jobs — and they will have three months to work on regular business before having to consider the recommendations of a powerful new joint committee tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction as part of the debt deal.

The deal also effectively gave Congress a budget for spending bills for the next two years, a scenario that could smooth the way for Congress to avoid more brinksmanship over a government shutdown before the 2012 elections, Senators said.

Ultimately, the debt package passed both chambers with large bipartisan margins that belied the drama that marked the past few months, with negotiations blowing up again and again primarily over the issue of taxes. The Senate voted 74-26 on Tuesday to clear the bill after the House passed the measure Monday, 269-161. Leaders in both parties called the deal a triumph of compromise, but it was clear Tuesday that the biggest battles had simply been punted a few months down the road.

Though Obama relented to a deal with Republicans without any upfront revenues, the president said Tuesday that he is still looking for the “balanced approach” that he had originally sought. He said the new Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction created by the law should institute changes to entitlements, such as Medicare, and also to the tax code.

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