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Lawmakers United in Spirit, Little Else

Goodwill Is Unlikely to Spill Over to Budget Battle

Osama bin Laden’s killing has unified Congress and the nation in a way not seen perhaps since the aftermath of 9/11, but it won’t magically shrink the $1.5 trillion deficit or resolve intractable disputes over energy and health care policy.

In the immediate aftermath of the assault on bin Laden on Sunday, the outpouring of patriotism and a sense of accomplishment came from across the political spectrum, with Republican and Democratic leaders alike praising the military and congratulating President Barack Obama on the triumphant and dramatic conclusion to the mission. Lawmakers from both parties said they were hopeful that there could be a return, even if a brief one, to the sense of unity they felt nearly a decade ago. 

But that’s easier said than done with the same old problems still unresolved — especially a crucial debt limit hike needed by early August to avert a potentially catastrophic default on the government’s obligations.

With a previously scheduled dinner with Congressional leaders and their spouses at the White House on Monday night, Obama was expected to push to extend the afterglow to other tough issues.

“I think the one theme you’d likely hear from the president [Monday] is the capacity for Americans to come together and achieve very difficult goals when we work together,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

Lawmakers, regardless of party, recalled the moments during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when they were huddled in their offices wondering if they were next and, in the weeks that followed, when they came together to pass major legislation such as the anti-terrorism USA PATRIOT Act.

“When I looked and heard the people in the streets of Washington last night, it reminded me of how we did all come together after the attacks of 9/11,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) said after a joint press conference with Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “For a while there was no partisan politics at all and everyone worked together, and I hope that maybe this will be a beneficial, unexpected side effect of this development. … I certainly hope so.”

“I hope the sentiment that we witnessed after 9/11 will return,” concurred Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is a member of the “gang of six” Senators trying to bridge the partisan differences on the budget. “It would sure be helpful to have both parties working together.” 

Rep. Michael Grimm said the military accomplishment is something that can be built upon. “The timing is perfect because, quite frankly, we’re facing one of the largest challenges of our country with this looming debt crisis, and we have to come together,” the New York Republican said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid declared a “remarkable new day” in the Senate. 

“Today, we welcome a spring of new optimism and renewed patriotism,” the Nevada Democrat said. 

But Members offered few examples of how to bridge the divide on the budget, the debt limit and other thorny, partisan issues.

Despite his optimism, Reid laid out the same political agenda he has been pursuing for months. He said he hopes to finally finish the small-business bill that has chewed up a month on the floor, take up controversial legislation eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and hold what will surely be a politically charged vote on the House-passed budget.

“A majority of the House has embraced it, a majority of the American people has rejected it, and the Senate will soon have its say, too,” Reid said. 

But lawmakers got some breathing room in their quest to find a budget agreement. In a letter Monday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said better-than-expected tax receipts have pushed back the deadline for getting a debt limit hike from July 8 to Aug. 2, he wrote.

Republican leaders don’t dispute the need to increase the debt limit but are demanding serious budget reforms and spending cuts alongside it, as are many moderate Democrats.

Still, Lieberman was pessimistic.

“I think the thrill and sort of increased sense of security that the American people have would lead us here on Capitol Hill to sustain this unity on the other big threat facing our country — a very different threat — which is our debt and deficit. But I’m not optimistic about that,” he said.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) noted that the looming debt ceiling issue and Osama bin Laden are very different issues, but both needed Republicans and Democrats to come together.

“Let’s hope that it does carry over, because the only way we’re going to solve this problem is to come to some kind of consensus,” he said.

However, the bipartisan spirit didn’t even get through a full day; Reid maneuvered to force votes on the small-business bill and on a controversial district court judge nominee while ripping Republicans for being “more interested in messages” than in getting something done for the American people. 

David M. Drucker and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.