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Analysis: Despite budget deal, atmosphere at U.S. Capitol remains toxic

House Budget Committee chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Senate Budget Committee chairman Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) hol
House Budget Committee chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Senate Budget Committee chairman Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) hol

By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Anyone expecting a new era of good feeling to break out on Capitol Hill in the wake of this week's bipartisan budget deal should probably forget about it.

That was the clear message from most lawmakers interviewed on Friday as well as from close observers of Congress, after the deal passed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday on its way to the Senate.

The budget bill, negotiated by Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray, is vague and non-specific, avoiding tough, divisive issues. But Congress' agenda for the next year is full of specifics, including raising the debt ceiling, funding individual government programs, immigration reform and passing a farm bill.

"I think next year is tougher," said Nebraska Republican Senator Mike Johanns. "It's an election year. Tens of millions of dollars will be spent trashing people, and it's hard to forget that."

The deal was a "one-off," said Norm Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

It may avoid government shutdowns, assuming it passes the Senate next week as expected, he said. But "I don't see any signs that the fundamentals have changed."

That was also the message from the floor of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans, some red-faced with rage, kept berating Democrats on Friday for stripping away their right to block President Barack Obama's judicial nominations using the filibuster, a procedural hurdle.

"The whole atmosphere here is totally poisoned, OK," said Senator John McCain when asked as he left the floor if the budget deal changed anything.

"There's no cooperation, there's no comity. And it is what it is," notwithstanding the fact that Democrats and Republicans came together to approve the budget bill.

"It can't get much worse," he said.

ELECTION YEAR 'TRASHING'

That does not bode well for the issues facing Congress as it enters its second half, with all seats in the Republican-led House and a third of those in the Democratic-led Senate up for election next November.

The political advantage of the budget agreement was its vagueness. It set overall spending levels for two years, a significant break from the recent pattern of short-term funding bills that required extension every few months, always under the threat of a government shutdown like the 16-day closure in October.

But it did not tackle the most volatile issues, such as Democratic demands for tax increases and Republican efforts to control spending on "entitlements," such as the healthcare program for seniors, Medicare, or Social Security retirement.

While it set as a goal $1.012 trillion in spending, it did not specify how the sum would be divided up among individual programs, each of which has a constituency.

Indeed, once the budget bill is approved by the Senate, as expected next week, a more challenging and potentially acrimonious appropriations process will begin that could set off a scramble among advocates for particular interests.

"We have a heavy lift ahead of us," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, "drafting, negotiating, and passing these bills in just over one month."

In an interview on PBS, Murray acknowledged that she and Ryan avoided the divisive questions. "You set aside the hot issues," she noted in describing the formula for success in the negotiations.

In the immigration fight, for example, setting aside the "hot issues" might not be possible, as Democrats, including Obama, insist that any legislation contain a "pathway to citizenship" for the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

That presents a problem for many conservative Republicans, who see those people as having broken the law by either entering the United States illegally or overstaying their visas.

DEBT CEILING UNRESOLVED

Nor did the budget deal address the bill expected in the spring to increase the nation's borrowing limit. Conservatives, particularly those associated with the Tea Party movement, have regularly opposed the debt ceiling measure, twice bringing the government to the brink of a potential default.

Since Republican House Speaker John Boehner enraged conservatives this week by pushing through the budget deal they equated with surrender, Ornstein believes he may feel a need to mollify them by again demanding big spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

"If you do something" that angers "the radical wing, does that give you more ability and incentive to do it again or does it require you to do something to make it clear that you really love them?" said Ornstein.

The debt ceiling "will come up," said Johanns. "We are going to struggle with that issue."

"The fact that the debt ceiling fight will come right before the Republican primaries means that the fiscal battles haven't gone away, but instead will likely heat up," said Ron Bonjean, a former Republican leadership aide in the House.

"Republican members of Congress will want to show how conservative they are to voters back home," he said. "This deal looks like a peaceful retreat made by both parties in order to rest up for the major battle over the debt ceiling."

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)

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