The New Norm: Last-Minute Political Deals

by Stuart Rothenberg April 13, 2011 · 11:32 AM EDT

One of the byproducts of the highly partisan environment that we find ourselves in is the last-minute political deal. That means that the Friday budget agreement isn’t likely to be the final last-minute political deal on the horizon.

Congress often waits until the clock is running out before it actually gets down to dealing with big issues, whether spending or policy matters. That’s why, if you are watching C-SPAN in the small hours of the night the last few days before the end of a Congressional session, you may think you are watching one of those TV telethons.

But the current hyperpartisan political environment makes it even less possible than usual to negotiate deals well before the clock strikes midnight. That’s because party leaders and activists spend most of their time playing to each party’s political base, rallying supporters behind their agenda and mobilizing their base against the opposition.

This means months of red meat for liberals and conservatives, both on the partisan cable networks (MSNBC for liberals and Democrats and Fox for conservatives and Republicans), on the Internet and in the mainstream media. There was almost no effort by party and ideological leaders to set the stage for an early negotiated compromise on the budget deal until the very last minute.

If you think that last week’s countdown to midnight on the budget is the only example of this process, you need only think back to 2009 and early 2010, when virtually the same thing happened with health care reform.

Democrats had the chance to pass something close to President Barack Obama’s health care bill by the fall of 2009 but chose to play out their hand until after Republican Scott Brown’s Senate election in Massachusetts forced them to pass a bill without a public option. Brown, of course, was going to be the 41st vote against the measure.

Instead of getting the agreement that they could have had four or five months earlier, Democrats on Capitol Hill beat their drums for the public option to keep the party’s grass roots energized. That helped with Democratic fundraising and kept liberals (both on Capitol Hill and in the rank and file) feeling good about the president and the Congressional leadership.

Democrats finally passed a health care reform bill that didn’t include the public option only when the alternative was no bill at all.

Liberals, of course, were less than happy about the outcome, but at least they could accept that party leaders had fought until the last possible moment for the best bill, compromising only when absolutely necessary.

That was a very different reaction from liberals than the one they exhibited after the vote extending the Bush-era tax cuts during the lame-duck session. Many in the Democratic base were angry at what they complained was the unnecessary eagerness of Obama to accept the extension. He failed to fight as hard as he could for limits on that extension, they complained.

Republicans and Democrats were in the same predicament over the current budget. They spent weeks caricaturing each other over spending and policy riders, hoping they could move the polls and force their opponents to blink.

An early compromise would have been seen by liberals and by tea party types as caving in, while a nail-biting, last-minute agreement could be explained as the best possible deal by each side.

Given the pressures to hold out to the end of negotiations to prove to each party’s base that Congressional leaders got the best deal possible, we are almost certain to see more eleventh-hour deals ahead. There is no incentive for the parties to do anything else.

When the deals are finally cut, of course, both parties can say that the other side caved, even if it isn’t true.

I recently saw a fundraising email from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s arm for raising money for state legislative candidates.

“Friend,” it began, “The Republicans blinked.”

The email went on to claim that “today the Democrats have shown that they will not be bullied by the Tea Party into abandoning our core values. ... We won. And the Republicans lost.”

After listing alleged GOP defeats and acknowledging that Democrats didn’t get everything they wanted, the email ended: “Republicans folded like a cheap lawn chair.”

Though neither side got everything it wanted and both sides — and the White House — can claim to have “won,” the idea that Democrats “won” is silly. Republicans traded a number of policy riders that had nothing to do with the basic budgetary issue for billions of dollars in cuts this fiscal year.

The entire Democratic effort was about minimizing the amount of the cuts. Congressional Democrats were entirely on the defensive even though, purely from a strategic point of view, they didn’t need to be. In the end, it was the Democrats who gave ground.

Still, the folks on the left and the right aren’t entirely happy with the outcome. And that almost assures more very late nights again soon.