In principle, Saturday's vote to keep the government open should be the perfect curtain-raiser for the political debates between now and the 2016 election. As their price for averting a government shutdown, Republicans demanded and got a gutting of one of the most important provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, preventing banks from speculating with government insured money.
Agencies hated by Republicans such as the Environmental Protection Agency took big cuts, and a rider was inserted permitting "mountaintop removal" coal mining once again. Another extraneous provision demanded by conservatives permits massive increase in individual campaign contributions.
The IRS enforcement budget lost $345.6 million. This will only increase public deficits, since most IRS enforcement is directed at upper-bracket tax cheats. The IRS collects about seven dollars for every dollar it spends on audits.
The bill also cuts Pell grants for lower income college students, diverting money to the for-profit companies that function as collection agencies for student loans. And it allows companies to cut pensions for current retirees, even those that are contractually guaranteed.
This deal was cut by the outgoing Congress, in which Democrats still controlled the Senate. Far worse will be directed at ordinary working families when the new Congress meets in January.
So a terrific debate is set in motion for the next two years, smoking out which side the Republicans are really on. Right?
If only. For in the great budget sellout of December 2014, fully 57 House Democrats voted with the Republicans to narrowly pass this deal. Key Senate Democrats close to Wall Street, such as Chuck Schumer of New York, were its enablers.
In the end game, President Obama, continuing his signature fighting style, blinked first. He evidently feared that another government shutdown would be blamed more on him than on the Republicans; or that even worse would be in store after January. The Republicans, once again, played chicken and prevailed.
So we were treated to a spectacle of the Democrats being split several ways, both on ideology and on tactics. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a progressive, after sending mixed signals earlier in the week, decided that the bill had to be opposed. But President Obama, his chief of staff Denis McDonough, along with Pelosi's more conservative second-in-command, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, actively lobbied Democrats to back the deal. So in the end the 57 House Democrats, about one-third of the Caucus, joined 162 Republicans to narrowly pass the budget.
Meanwhile, over on the Senate side, the Democrats split as well. Only six Democratic progressives led by Elizabeth Warren voted against cloture. Then, once the bill was assured of passing, several Wall Street-friendly Democrats from relatively liberal states cast a crocodile-tears record vote against, such as Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
So, while the Democratic Party should be carrying the banner of working families, making it clear that the rules are rigged against regular people and that Republicans are the riggers-in-chief, the reality is far more blurred. The Democrats not only lost this vote on issues they allegedly care about; they lost their role as a credible opposition.
As George Orwell wrote in the famous ending of Animal Farm,"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
Well, there is this comfort: At least the Democrats' likely nominee in 2016 stands four square with ordinary Americans against Wall Street... Uh, whoops. The greater likelihood, of course, is that the Clinton-Obama-Rubin dynasty will continue with another Clinton, and the blur will continue.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president only grows louder.
I am often asked if I'd support a third party. I always respond that I'd be thrilled with a second party.
Update (2:00pm EST, 12/16/2014): According to a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, "Schumer played no role in the inclusion of the swaps push out provision in the omnibus." Robert Kuttner is doing further reporting and will provide more background in next Monday's post.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School, and a senior Fellow at Demos. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook.