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Carl P. Leubsdorf: Stern tests ahead for compromise

Sometimes, the system works.

That happened twice in the last week, once on Syria and the other on the pending choice of a new Fed chairman. In both cases, realism triumphed over a potential ideological deadlock.

But the forthcoming battles over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling will be more difficult, in part because there may not be enough realists to overcome the ideologues.

In the case of Syria, the United States and Russia took advantage of a seemingly casual comment by Secretary of State John Kerry to head off, at least temporarily, a military confrontation no one really wanted. It required flexibility and pursuit of practicalities, despite President Barack Obama’s uncertain leadership and verbal rejoinders from both countries likely to increase tensions between them.

Even more unexpected than the U.S.-Russian agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was Larry Summers’ statement withdrawing his candidacy to chair the Federal Reserve. Facing liberal Democratic as well as Republican opposition, the controversial economist said he wanted to spare the Fed, the president and the nation the acrimonious battle that loomed in a struggle Obama hardly needed, given pending confrontations with congressional Republicans.

Now, attention has returned to the question of funding the federal government after the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30 because of GOP demands to defund Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act as their price for approving overall funds.

Here, realism is notably lacking. After all, the Affordable Care Act has been law for three years, the Supreme Court has validated its constitutionality, some provisions have already taken effect, and Obama and the Senate will never accept defunding it.

GOP leaders backed off a potential compromise, allowing the House to vote separately on funding the government and denying health care funds, after outside conservative groups exerted pressure against it. While the usual pattern has been to resolve these matters at the 11th hour – or slightly later – there is no guarantee that will happen this time.

In a second threat to keeping the government functioning, Republicans demand significant spending cuts in the measure raising the legal limit for the federal debt, which will be reached in mid-October.

Obama rejects linking the two, as he was forced to do in 2011. Besides, there is no guarantee Republican hard-liners would agree to raise the debt ceiling, even if it includes their budget cuts.

Throughout my half century in Washington, Congress has regularly clashed on the debt ceiling, where a “no” vote was a harmless but nonbinding way to oppose federal spending. Sen. Obama cast such a vote in 2006, but now calls it a mistake. But these battles were largely for show.

Not now, since opponents decided the measure is the ideal vehicle for spending cuts, even if the ensuing failure to act might damage America’s global financial standing.

That’s the biggest difference with past fights. After all, White House-Congress disagreements are the normal state of affairs; the past 80 years have seen only brief periods other than wartime when Congress and presidents were so in sync that lawmakers quickly passed presidential proposals, mostly at the start of influential presidencies like those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Obama.

When opponents recovered their political strength, deadlocks quickly returned. But none displayed the ideological intensity congressional Republicans have shown since regaining the House in 2010.

The writers of the Constitution created a balance between branches in which realism and compromise in Congress helped enable the system to work. History suggests Republican House Speaker John Boehner would compromise now, if he could.

And while developments on Syria and Summers’ withdrawal show realism still exists, neither required approval of the House. Enough GOP lawmakers there oppose compromise as a matter of principle, meaning the coming weeks could bring nothing but trouble and threaten more than ever the usual inevitable compromises.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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