A Rare Bipartisan House Budget Vote Is Cause for Optimism

The Murray-Ryan bill won surprisingly strong bipartisan backing in the House, raising hopes of a more normal Capitol Hill atmosphere and maybe actually getting something done in 2014.

Christmas came early to the House of Representatives on Thursday as Santa Claus arrived with a neatly wrapped bipartisan package in the form of overwhelming support for the bipartisan Murray-Ryan budget agreement, which passed 332-94 in the House’s last vote of 2013. The bill still needs Senate approval.

Although it’s likely that most Americans would prefer that Congress receive a lump of coal, members seemed pleasantly surprised with the cooperation evidenced in the final tally. “It might be a Christmas miracle that bipartisanship can still happen,” exclaimed Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC). His joy was shared by Paul Ryan, who said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the number in favor, which was higher than he expected.

Despite the deal’s support not just from Ryan but from Speaker John Boehner and the rest of House GOP leadership, there were worries that a number of Republicans would defect, particularly after the Club for Growth and Heritage Action announced they were against the deal. These conservative groups criticized the bill for increasing the budget past sequester levels and were dissatisfied that it only cut spending by $23 billion over 10 years—a total that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a supporter of the agreement, derided as “basically one Hurricane Sandy away from going to zero, so basically it is a rounding error of zero.”

However, in a rare speech on the floor, Boehner urged members to support the deal, saying “if you’re in favor of reducing the budget deficit, you should be voting for this budget.” In the final tally, the speaker was more persuasive than outside groups, as only 62 Republicans out of 232 voted against.

On the Democratic side, only 32 Democrats were against, but that number included important members such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. Much of the Democratic discontent focused on the failure of the deal to extend long-term unemployment benefits, which are due to run out by the end of December. Chris Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee who voted for the bill, bemoaned congressional failure to act on this as “one unhappy note in an otherwise positive day.” He went on to express the hope that Congress would come back on an emergency basis to address the issue and suggested that the cost of extending unemployment insurance could be paid for through savings in the farm bill.

When the House returns in 2014, it will have to deal with legislative priorities like the immigration bill, a new farm bill, as well as yet another vote on raising the debt ceiling. The hope among many members, including Ryan, is that by setting the budget parameters for the next two years, it may enable a return to a more normal atmosphere on the Hill and the possibility of getting more accomplished.

“We’re just happy we’re getting this place working again,” said the Wisconsin Republican, who thought that members from both parties would be looking forward to returning to work in the new year. There’s still plenty that could still go wrong in the new year, but in the meantime, with this Yuletide spirit on Capitol Hill, there are likely plenty of congressmen and voters who wish it could be Christmas every day.