Think last week’s budget battle was ugly? Just wait.

Washington is taking bit of a breather this week after an expensive, disruptive government shutdown was averted at the last minute late Friday, but the respite will be short.

Before long lawmakers will start debating raising the federal debt ceiling and next year’s budget, which could make the just-completed fight look like a romp in the park.

Nicholas Kristof pretty much nails what’s going on here it in his New York Times column yesterday.

“It’s unclear where the adults are, but they don’t seem to be in Washington,” he wrote. “It’s painful how vapid the discourse is and how incompetent and cowardly our leaders have proved to be.”

That includes the Democrats who played a major role in creating the current mess by their “failure to ensure a full year’s funding last year when they controlled both houses of Congress…the Democrats were terror-stricken at the thought of approving spending bills that Republicans would criticize. So in gross dereliction of duty, the Democrats punted.”

And the Republicans, who threatened a government shutdown that could have crippled the economic recovery, tried to hold the budget hostage to the abortion issue and who continue to demand tax cuts for the wealthy that make the whole deficit cutting push a sham.

Looking forward, the House Republican budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) , would slash spending by much, much more, give even more tax breaks to the wealthy and “end Medicare and Medicaid as we know them,” as Kristof puts it.

At least Ryan is willing to confront the need for serious entitlement reform, something President Obama clearly lacked the spine to tackle during his first two years in office, but Ryan’s way of doing it would gut programs millions of elderly Americans depend on for their medical care.

Reportedly President Obama will now talk about entitlement reform in a major speech this week, but I’m betting that with elections in the offing and his hands-off leadership style it will probably be too little to make a difference, and the initiative will remain with House Republicans, who – unlike the Democratic administration – seem to know what they want.

Kristof doesn’t get to the other 800 pound gorilla in the federal budget debate, but I bet he’s thinking about it: military spending.

We fought the Iraq war mostly by borrowing, we’re still borrowing to fight the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan and now we’re expending all kinds of expensive munitions in Libya. Many of the same folks who see such a dire threat in the federal deficit think we should be much more willing to go to war elsewhere – Iran, Syria, maybe the whole Muslim world.

You can cause untold hardship to millions of Americans, including many in our own community, by ruthlessly cutting every health and human service program to the bone – but you’re still not going to really slash the deficit without seriously cutting defense spending. And you’re not going to do it while cutting taxes.

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, Jewish groups don’t like to dip their toes in the treacherous partisan waters of budget and taxation debates, preferring instead to limit their activism to efforts to protect a limited number of key programs.

They may not have that luxury as Congress starts debating the core program of the social safety net, and as pressure to cut the budget deficit at all costs grows.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.