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Editorial: Crawling toward a functioning Congress

No one seriously thinks a new era of bipartisanship opened on Wednesday when the U.S. Senate passed a two-year budget deal, closing out 2013 without the histrionics and brinkmanship we’ve come to expect from Congress.

But it’s a start.

While the actual achievement was modest — one of Congress’ main tasks, after all, is to pass a budget — the deal marked a clear break from the Congress we’ve come to know in recent years.

Congress in 2013, a year marked by a partial government shutdown, ranks among the body’s least productive and most rancorous.

For four years, Congress has failed to produce a conference agreement on a federal budget blueprint. Until now. And notably, it was passage in the Senate, not the House, that was the nail-biter. It easily passed the House last week, often the more volatile chamber.

By those measures, a bipartisan budget deal that quiets the waters and opens the door for Congress to look beyond the debt ceiling and spending cuts is real progress. The deal sets spending levels for two years and lessens some painful automatic spending cuts. It’s a return to normal budgeting after years of relying on short-term funding measures.

Credit goes to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, who negotiated the budget deal over objections from members of both parties. House Majority Leader John Boehner also gets credit for distancing himself from conservatives who tried to sabotage the deal. Unlike during the government shutdown, Boehner tried to keep extremism on the fringes.

Just how long might this relative peace last?

A first test comes in January, when Congress must pass a measure to fund the government at levels approved in Wednesday’s budget deal. An even bigger one comes in March, when the debt ceiling likely will have to be raised again.

If Congress can jump that hurdle and weather the 2014 primary season — hard to compromise when it could hurt you in a primary — the public will finally get a sense of whether the budget deal was a one-off or the start of something better. One of the biggest threats to ongoing peace is the deep division within the Republican Party.

So much important work lies ahead — immigration reform, climate change, addressing Medicare, Social Security and tax reform. More gridlock, more wasted time, is a bitter prospect.

Wednesday’s budget deal is wholly unambitious. This is no “grand bargain,” as many have long pushed.

But as Rep. Ryan explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he and Sen. Murray “wanted to try to make this divided government work, at least at a minimum, basic functioning level.”

A low bar, indeed.

Put another way, Ryan said, “You gotta, you know, crawl before you can walk before you can run.”

Crawling, with the faint hope of grown-up steps to come.