There were no federal government workers scheduled to be furloughed in the morning, no Head Start classroom faced with closing its doors, nor a credit downgrade looming over the debate. Yet the Senate managed to pass a budget Wednesday 64 to 36 despite a divided government.
In a Congressional year branded by low productivity and a government shutdown, it's an unexpected feat for lawmakers to negotiate a deal at all. Just more than two months ago, the 113th Congress sat with single-digit approval numbers as World War II veterans were locked out of monuments on the National Mall and cancer patients were turned away from clinical tests at the National Institutes of Health.
The budget deal, which was cobbled together by Budget Committee Chairmen Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., marks a dramatic shift in the way Washington has done business over the past two years. Since 2011, politicians stumbled from debt ceiling showdowns to fiscal cliffs. The legislation that passed Wednesday keeps the government funded at just over $1 trillion a year through 2015 and thwarts potential government shutdowns in January and again in October.
The legislation also restores $63 billion to federal agencies affected by automatic spending cuts known as the sequester and reduces the federal deficit by $23 billion over the next two years.
"It's going to be very positive for the economy," says Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is a newcomer to Capitol Hill. "My pledge the day I was sworn in was I wanted to get a budget done immediately and try to deal with sequester. I feel like we have tackled those two."
Even lawmakers who voted against the final bill said the vigorous debate on the Senate floor and ultimately the passage of a budget deal was a positive step for a Congress plagued by bitter partisan bickering.
"It has been so long since we have done this now that if we can almost make a demonstration out of this effort, we can remind the American people and members of the House and Senate what happens when you do this the right way," says Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "It is a huge step forward."
When asked if the American people might give Congress a higher approval rating for the holidays, however, Blunt wasn't sure the Senate had made that much progress.
"I don't expect our approval rating to skyrocket," he said breaking a smile.
The goodwill may be short lived. The bipartisan budget bill passes amidst a bitter partisan backdrop in the Senate.
Since November, when Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., passed a rules change that allows for the president's judicial and executive nominees to be confirmed with a 51-vote majority, Republicans have felt slighted.
"It's certainly bittersweet. The Senate rules change is a really, really big deal," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., says. Flake ultimately voted against the budget bill although he helped the legislation overcome a procedural hurdle Tuesday. "I hope we keep working together. We are going to have to. This is divided government and this is how it works, but we also have to respect the process."
While some Republicans in the Senate voted against the budget bill because it cut too little over the next two years, a series of Senate Republicans had another reason for their opposition. Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas voted against the legislation because it cuts military benefits for retirees.
As it is written, the budget reduces cost of living adjustments applicable to military retiree benefits by one percentage point each year.
"Of all the people we could have picked on to screw, how could we have arrived here?" Graham asked during a press conference held in opposition to the bill Wednesday.
Senators argue that the cut to veterans makes them less optimistic that Congress will be able to work together in January even with a budget fight behind them.