Congress passes bill ending fiscal crisis. What was it all about?

President Obama signed the measure into law shortly after midnight Thursday. But it leaves open the possibility that the whole thing can happen again in a few short months.

Evan Vucci/AP
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., walks to his office after arriving on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington.

Yes, it’s finally over. The US government reopened Thursday morning, and the Treasury prepared for a normal day of paying the nation’s bills after Congress approved a bill to raise the debt ceiling and end the 16-day federal shutdown.

President Obama signed the measure into law shortly after midnight Thursday.

In the short term, the resolution of the fiscal crisis represented a decisive defeat for congressional Republicans. At the urging of tea party-aligned conservative members, the House GOP at first demanded the defunding of Obamacare in return for continued government spending. What it got was a slight tightening of procedures for the verification of income levels for those applying for Obamacare subsidies.

The legislation also sets up a process for a House-Senate conference on a long-term budget and tax plan for the nation.

“We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” said House Speaker John Boehner in an interview with an Ohio radio station.

For the medium term, the effects of the resolution are less clear. That’s because it leaves open the possibility that the whole thing can happen again in a few short months. The legislation ending the standoff funds the government only until Jan. 15. It raises the debt ceiling to a level that the United States will hit around Feb. 7.

“We think that we’ll be back here in January debating the same issues. This is, I fear, a permanent feature of our budgetary process,” John Chambers, managing director of Standard & Poor’s rating service, told CNN.

The longer-term implication of the endgame may be this: It sets up an internal Republican struggle, if not for the soul of the party, for the nature of its approach to Washington governance in an era of divided partisan power.

That’s because tea party conservatives generally say they do not want to accommodate themselves to what their establishment GOP brethren consider the reality of their position. They want to fight, if not to win, then for fighting’s sake.

Matt Kibbe, president of the tea party-leaning group FreedomWorks, explained this Wednesday in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The endgame fiscal deal represented a complete loss, in Mr. Kibbe’s view, but that did not mean conservatives had accomplished nothing.

“What we accomplished was fighting,” he told Mr. Cooper. “It’s important in Washington, D.C., to step up to the plate and actually stand for something.”

The problem for conservatives is that the rest of the party sees the recent unpleasantness as pugilism without a point. The GOP’s approval rating sank to new lows, while the Affordable Care Act’s many rollout problems were overshadowed by news about the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling disaster.

There’s a sense of deep political disappointment in the conservative right that led to their recent actions, writes generally right-leaning columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times. They’ve seen the federal government grow and grow, even under Republican presidents.

But the defund-Obamacare strategy was doomed from the start: Why would Mr. Obama ever sign away his signature domestic achievement? In the meantime, the fiscal struggle sucked billions of dollars out of the economy, took paychecks away from government workers, and alienated millions of nonconservative voters.

“That’s the only way in which this pointless-seeming exercise could turn out to have some sort of point: if it’s long remembered, by its proponents and their enablers alike, as the utter folly that it was,” writes Mr. Douthat.

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