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What’s next in Washington?

ST. PAUL — U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer summed up the past few weeks of federal political debates, including a 16-day government shutdown, like many Americans would: “What in the Sam Hill is wrong with this town?”

Most around Washington seem to expect better results when the next budget deadline arrives, or at least they hope so. The optimism comes in large part because of the ugly lead-up to Wednesday night’s shutdown solution.

“Going to the brink like this, I think, was scary,” Cramer, R-N.D., said of shutting down the government and coming within hours of defaulting on repaying loans.

Bipartisanship was the talk of the town Thursday, a day after Congress and President Barack Obama came together on a plan to extend the budget to January and agree to consider raising the country’s debt limit a month or two later.

“Today is a day of what I would call kumbaya,” U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said, referring to a bipartisan breakfast, news conference and other acts of political kindness.

Heitkamp and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were among 14 senators in a bipartisan group that has received lots of credit for crafting portions of the shutdown-ending deal.

“I feel that we got through the first hurdle of opening the government,” Klobuchar said, but the group likely will resume its work before the January budget deadline. “You cannot stand on the table and celebrate. The hardest part is yet to come.”

Congress’ goal is to develop a long-term budget, not just extend the current one for a few months. That is where the nonpartisan group will be even more valuable, Klobuchar said.

“It was an incredible group because we got along so well,” Klobuchar said of the seven Republicans and seven Democrats.

The public’s reaction to the shutdown and deficit brinksmanship will help determine whether the next deadline is as messy as the one just passed.

“I think everyone understands that the American public is fed up,” Heitkamp said. “We have done serious, and hopefully not irreparable, damage to the economy.”

While most of the discussion in Congress is about budgets, health care issues and the like, many Upper Midwest lawmakers said politicians need to step back and look at themselves.

“Make no mistake, we’ve got a broken government that desperately needs fixing,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. “The federal government can’t keep skipping from crisis to crisis, causing self-inflicted wounds to the U.S. economy.”

Cramer dipped into sports to explain the situation.

“I hope the swinging for the fence or the Hail Mary pass is now out of the playbook for Republicans and obstinance on the part of Democrats can be tempered and everybody could attempt to come to some reality,” Cramer said.

President Barack Obama echoed that.

“The good news is we’ll bounce back from this,” he said Thursday. “We always do. America is the bedrock of the global economy for a reason.”

Like other politicians, however, the president said things have to change.

“We’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people, and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust,” the president said. “Our system of self-government doesn’t function without it.”

Many in Washington, including some in the GOP, blame right-wing tea party Republicans for recent problems. They insisted on trimming Obama’s health care laws, while the president refused to discuss those issues until the budget passed.

Even those who supported the tea party actions could have a change of heart, Klobuchar said. “I feel fairly certain that a lot of my Republican colleagues, a majority of them, do not want to go through this again.”

Sounding much like he has in the past, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., summarized issues House Republican leaders see as priorities: “Moving forward, we must address runaway spending, the debt and failed policies like Obamacare that are barriers to our economic recovery and threaten the future of our children and grandchildren.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said lawmakers may have learned something in recent weeks.

“Hopefully this experience will serve as a lesson to the tea party that shutting down the government and threatening world economic chaos is no way to conduct business or extract ideological concessions,” Walz said. “We must end this cycle of manufactured crisis and get back to doing the work the people sent us here to do, like tackling the debt, creating jobs, growing our economy and getting a long-term farm bill signed into law.”

The budget and debt limit agreement can free up issues Upper Midwest members of Congress say are important to their constituents. Prime among them is a farm bill.

Most farm law expired at the end of September. Even then, it just was a year’s extension of old farm law.

Congress’ top four farm leaders, including U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., already have met and are planning for negotiations to mesh House and Senate bills. Those talks are set to begin Oct. 28.

Obama on Thursday made the farm bill his third priority for Congress, after a new budget and immigration reform.

As part of United Solutions, a bipartisan group of freshman House members that made budget suggestions, Cramer said the rookies feel a bit empowered. “Would it be so bad if a bunch of freshmen stepped up and showed the way?”

Another North Dakota freshman was part of the group that many Washington insiders credit for pushing the shutdown-ending deal.

Heitkamp said the bipartisan group will look for other ways to help.

“I shake my head and I look at the waste,” Heitkamp said. “We have cost the economy, some are arguing hundreds of thousands of jobs. ... We have cost the taxpayers $160 million a day by shutting down government.”

But, she said, “that was yesterday.” Now Congress needs to mend its ways and make progress.

“If we show dysfunction right before Christmas, that is not a good thing,” Heitkamp said of the time just before the next budget deadline.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.