Washington shivered in the grip of a cold front last week. In Congress, however, there were hints of an early thaw.
Fresh on the heels of a retreat by Republican House members, who concluded that a debt-ceiling showdown might be a less-than-spiffing idea, Senate Democrats backed off a shaky ultimatum of their own. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell struck an accord to modify the rules for Senate filibusters.
The filibuster has been abused in recent years, and liberals were eager to dynamite the cause of so many Republican- engineered logjams. Instead, the Reid-McConnell deal preserves the power of the minority to require a 60-vote supermajority on legislation. At the same time, the agreement should ease procedural delays and votes on nominations.
In return for a slightly smaller jam, Republicans will regain the power, thwarted by Reid, to offer amendments and shape legislation.
For critics of a dysfunctional Capitol, the accord was small beer: Passing legislation in the Senate will continue to be a tortuous process. Yet for two fiercely partisan leaders who often behave like scorpions trapped in a jar, the agreement was nonetheless significant.
It represented tacit acknowledgment that Republicans have abused the filibuster, that Democrats have squelched Republican prerogatives and, most important, that neither leader is eager to inflict additional damage on the Senate in pursuit of short-term partisan gain.
The deal was further evidence that in the absence of grand bargains, incrementalism looks pretty grand itself. Despite harsh words and a paucity of common ground, the two parties have made genuine progress. The fiscal cliff was averted. The tax burden was adjusted, and the deficit trimmed.
With forced spending cuts and a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government looming, chances for additional reductions are good. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group in the Senate is negotiating immigration reform.
If Washington's chroniclers haven't applauded these modest changes, the markets have. Borrowers continue to pay the Treasury to hold their money in U.S. bonds; the stock market, powered by solid earnings, is robust, with the S&P 500 closing above 1,500 for the first time since 2007; the housing market is improving.
Unemployment is too high and wages are too low, but the economy is muddling through. Likewise, Washington could do worse than its current trajectory. While the cold hits like a brick, the warmth of small comity sneaks up on you.