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This isn’t the budget deal President Barack Obama has been seeking for the past three years. It’s certainly not the deal he might have been able to conjure a year ago, when he had Republicans desperate to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts. But for a weakened president under water in the polls and facing the prospect of endless stalemate in Congress, it appears to be better than nothing.
There really isn’t much for Obama to crow about, especially given his high hopes earlier in the year for a charm offensive with Senate Republicans in which he talked repeatedly of getting them to compromise on taxes in return for ending the sequester and trimming entitlements.
The deal does lift half of the sequester this year and about a quarter of it next year, and, importantly, it avoids the governing-by-crisis model that has marked the past three years of divided government.
Airline passengers will face higher fees in a nod to making the agreement “balanced,” but that’s not the kind of revenue that Obama mentioned numerous times on the stump last year as he sought re-election.
Corporate tax loopholes — every one — remain safe. Tax breaks for the wealthy are protected. And Obama’s jobs agenda — indeed, the bulk of his legislative agenda, period — remains in the congressional circular file.
After the deal was announced, the president called for an extension of unemployment benefits but he appeared unwilling to risk the modest agreement by demanding it be included.
As one senior Senate Democratic aide put it, the die for the deal was cast when the White House allowed permanent tax relief last year without demanding the end of the sequester in the fiscal-cliff deal negotiated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“We pissed away most of our leverage with the fiscal-cliff deal,” the aide said. “The minute that deal was struck, we knew [the] sequester was here to stay and we wouldn’t be able to get rid of it on our terms.”
Still, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest praised the deal as allowing a return to “regular order” while limiting the damage to the economy if the sequester had been allowed to continue full force.
Some Senate Democratic aides defended the deal, saying it would set a precedent for replacing the sequester in the future. They noted that the agreement left Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security untouched. The likely alternative — keeping the entire sequester — would have been much worse.
But Republicans claimed another precedent — that the sequester would be replaced, if at all, without tax increases.