No three cheers for this deal

Well, what do you know? We didn’t go over the "fiscal cliff" after all. In the end, the country was spared. Only the Republican Party was destroyed. Thanks to John Boehner.

Commentators quickly ran out of words to describe what happened to the Republican Party. They called it a “rout,” a “complete surrender” and a “self-defeating strategy.” They accused Speaker Boehner of being “the worst negotiator in history” and an “emotionally-compromised weeper.” And those were just Republicans talking!

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Indeed, for Republicans, there’s little to love in the final package. They shared in keeping tax rates lower for 98 percent of Americans. But, at the same time, they broke their pledge to Grover Norquist by voting to raise taxes on the upper 2 percent. In return for this they got no additional spending cuts, no changes to Medicare or Social Security and added $30 billion to the debt to pay for unemployment insurance.

But what was bad news for Republicans wasn’t good news for Democrats, either. Democrats gave as much as they got. They won extension of unemployment benefits. And they locked in higher tax rates for the wealthiest of Americans. But only after agreeing to redefine the “middle-class” as individuals making more than $400,000 a year, and couples making more than $450,000; only after swallowing an increase in the payroll tax for 100 percent of wage-earners; and only after raising the exemption on estate taxes from $1 million to $5 million.

But, for both parties, the worst part is: this is only a temporary fix. Throughout negotiations on the fiscal cliff, President Obama repeatedly stressed “I want a big deal.” Yet he ended up accepting a much smaller deal that contained no agreement on an increase in the debt ceiling; no action on this year’s continuing budget resolution; and only a two-month delay of those massive, mandatory cuts to defense and domestic programs known as the sequester. Which means three more nasty fiscal battles ahead.

Debate over the debt ceiling comes first. Even though, technically, the United States has already surpassed its legal borrowing limit of $16.394 trillion, the Treasury Department’s using “extraordinary measures” to pay our bills — but only until Feb. 28. Congress must act to raise the debt ceiling before then. Which won’t be easy. Obama vows he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling, but he may have no choice. Republicans have already announced they’ll demand cuts to Social Security and Medicare as their price for lifting the debt ceiling.

We may survive the next debt ceiling battle only to deal with aftereffects of the last one. As part of the last debt-ceiling deal, Republicans demanded creation of a supercommittee to draft a deficit-reduction plan. If Congress couldn’t agree to the committee’s recommendations, $1 trillion in cuts — one-half in the Pentagon, one-half in domestic programs — would automatically kick in on Jan. 1. The fiscal-fix legislation delays the sequester for two months, until March 1.

Which paves the way for Round Three: keeping the government running by passage of a continuing resolution. The current agreement expires on March 31. And in none of these three upcoming battles will the president have the same strong leverage he enjoyed this week with scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

Careening from one fiscal crisis to another? Surely, conservatives and liberals must agree, this is no way for Congress to govern. If anybody tried to run a business this way, they’d be fired.