Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bi-partisanship on the horizon

For those wondering what the president has been smoking when he predicts that after the election, Republicans in Congress will be more willing to work constructively with Democrats than they have previously, tangible proof of his sobriety came this week in the form of a letter from six Senators, three Republicans and three Democrats, mostly from the Armed Services Committee. (The three Republican senators are McCain, Graham, and Ayotte.) These six Senators wrote a letter to the Senate leadership stressing the importance of avoiding the automatic cuts (sequestration), to the Defense budget as well as other parts of the federal budget, that will take effect in January if Congress does not take action. To avoid sequestration, these six Senators pledge, 
“we are committed to working together to help forge a balanced bipartisan deficit reduction package to avoid damage to our national security, important domestic priorities, and our economy.”
Photos from TPM
 The key word here is "balanced." By adopting this word, which the administration and Congressional Democrats have been using throughout lengthy budget negotiations to mean a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, the three Republican Senators are signalling that they are prepared to break from the so far universal pledge of Congressional Republicans not to seek a penny of revenue increases to reduce the budget deficit. The Republican battle cry so far has been a resounding "NO" to anything that smells remotely like a tax increase. That means NO to even considering changing the depreciation schedule for corporate jets. NO means the top marginal tax rate must remain stuck at near historic lows. NO means that multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney should continue to pay a lower tax rate than ordinary middle-class working people. Better to take away children's lunch money than ask millionaires to stretch out their depreciation deductions.

But now three important GOP senators are saying yes to a bi-partisan compromise that will save some important programs, maintain defense preparedness, and pay for it with some enhancements to revenue. Those who criticized the president's team for seeming weak during last year's budget negotiations should remember that this Republican cave was baked into that budget agreement at that time. This week's letter from the new Gang of Six happened because people like Barack Obama and Harry Reid were smart enough to craft a deal that foresaw this development. They might have had a slight hope that the twelve member super-committee might have reached the necessary bi-partisan budget agreement last year to avoid sequestration next year. But that was not to be, because the Republican members were wedded to their NO. The fail safe mechanism built into the agreement was to allow time after the 2012 election to make the necessary agreement. Republicans went along hoping that President Obama would be defeated for re-election, and they might still get their way after the election without having to compromise on taxes. But now Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte are recognizing the necessity of starting to work on a compromise, probably based on the expectation that Obama will win re-election, but perhaps even in the event that he loses.

(I would almost want to see, perhaps acted out in some alternative universe, what would happen in the event of a Romney victory in November, after Senators recognized that they still needed to reach a bi-partisan compromise to avoid sequestration. Imagine the first act of Congress in a Romney administration being to raise taxes. And Romney having to explain, well, I know I promised that on day one I was going to repeal Obamacare, but actually I don't have the votes to do that, and instead I have to raise taxes so that we don't have to put major parts of our military in mothballs. People like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are finally willing to stand up and explain that this is going to happen, folks, regardless of who wins the presidential election.)

Democrats are going to have to compromise also, and when they go along with cuts to popular benefit programs, there is going to be a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in Democratic quarters. But the more important breach in the dike of resistance is among Republicans. Once Republicans admit that we cannot solve the deficit without considering revenue as well as expenses; once they recognize publicly that we as a nation have to be grown up enough to pay for all the government services that people want; once they admit that asking the wealthy to contribute a bit more is actually conceivable; the game they have been playing the last few years is over. Grover Norquist's veto power over any reasonable budget agreement will be broken. And the idea of Democrats and Republicans actually sitting down at the table together for some honest give-and-take becomes not only possible but unavoidable.

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