WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans did little to improve their battered image with Americans in a bitter budget debate that ended only with a last-minute deal that barely averted a government shutdown.
The political adversaries reached agreement to fund the government over the next six months little more than an hour before a midnight Friday deadline. The deal must still be voted on next week, after days of invective over spending and policy issues.
That was only round one. Now they have to launch into negotiations over the U.S. budget for fiscal 2012, and if the past few weeks have been any indication, it will be a difficult undertaking.
Welcome to divided government, 2011. Republicans won the House of Representatives in last November's congressional elections, forcing President Barack Obama to take into account their views after he governed mostly with Democrats his first two years in office.
American voters are now seeing the results of the elections: Both parties battling over what they believe are the true concerns of the people. Republicans want deep cuts in spending, and Democrats want to protect programs for their constituents.
Who comes out ahead? The 1995 government shutdown was perceived to help the Democrats in a showdown between President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
This time, the top House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, survived his first major test, gaining $37.8 billion in spending cuts and averting a government shutdown that could have proven politically disastrous for Republicans in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Obama will score some points, too, for being willing to compromise with Republicans, a potential plus as he campaigns for re-election and tries to rebuild ties with independent voters who fled Democrats in congressional elections last year.
Obama, who convened evening meetings this week at the White House to push Republicans and his fellow Democrats toward a deal, was also worried about the repercussions of a shutdown, which he said could have hurt the economy just as it was showing vigor.
But Republicans may reap more political gains from the accord, which could give them momentum leading into upcoming spending battles, the first over the fiscal 2012 budget and the other in a bid to increase the U.S. debt limit.
"Republicans are going to go out and say this is a big start," said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "Their argument is going to be that they were elected to do this."
By making some last-minute concessions, Boehner could face some heat from rock-ribbed conservative Tea Party activists, who had demanded cuts of at least $100 billion in the budget for the rest of this year and felt it would have been worth it to fight for them even if the government shut down.
But Madonna said Republicans would have "flubbed" their bigger goals if they refused to budge.
Obama might have paid a price too if the impasse continued.
He had faced criticism from both Republicans and some Democratic supporters for failing to engage more actively in the budget negotiations up until this week when he took on a much higher-profile role.
Liberal blogger Ezra Klein labeled Obama's approach the "Can you hear me now strategy?" and some accused the president of delegating too much of the negotiations to Vice President Joe Biden.
"The truth is Obama hasn't been closely involved in this and Biden hasn't either," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "I don't think anybody will say Obama has been a leader on the budget and the debt. He has basically avoided making decisions."
In terms of sheer numbers, Republicans got more of what they wanted than Democrats, who initially resisted any cut in the overall budget for this year.
The spending measure initially passed by House Republicans would have cut the budget by $61 billion. As of last week, Democrats were willing to go along with $33 billion and ultimately agreed to $37.8 billion.
Budget experts say the cuts in discretionary spending will barely dent a U.S. budget deficit projected to hit $1.4 trillion this year.
But Republicans have set their sights on a more far-reaching effort to shrink the federal government's size and that one is likely to be a much tougher sell.
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