Budget Wars: A Case for Hope

Seeing a Way Out of the Mess

There are, believe it or not, grounds for hoping that the sequester, stupid as it is, might open the way to ending our nation's budget stalemate.

Hope is in short supply right now, but the case for seeing a way out of the current mess rests on knowable facts and plausible assumptions.

It starts with the significant number of Republicans in the Senate -- possibly as many 20 -- who think what's going on is foolish and counterproductive. The White House is betting that enough GOP senators are prepared to make a deal along lines that President Obama has already put forward.

Obama's lieutenants argue that while Republicans are aware that the president is seeking new revenue through tax reform, many did not fully grasp the extent to which he has offered significant long-term spending cuts. These include reductions in Medicare and a willingness (to the consternation of many Democrats) to alter the index that determines Social Security increases. Obama has proposed $930 billion in cuts to get $580 billion in revenues.

Senior administration officials note that Obama cannot stray too far from his existing offer, which was already a compromise, without losing the Democratic votes a deal would need. But his framework, they believe, could create a basis for negotiation with Republican senators such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dislike the deep automatic cuts in defense spending, and others, such as Sens. Susan Collins and Bob Corker, who dislike government-by-showdown.

Graham was especially bullish, declaring that Obama's outreach to Republicans -- the president invited about a dozen GOP senators to dinner on Wednesday night -- was "the most encouraging engagement on a big issue I've seen since the early years of his presidency."

If the Senate actually passed a bipartisan solution, it would still have to clear the House, requiring Speaker John Boehner to allow yet another bill get through with a large number of Democratic votes. But the sequester almost certainly marked the high point of solidarity among House Republicans. Letting it take hold was an easy concession for Boehner to make to more militant conservatives, and kept them from pushing toward government shutdowns or a politically and economically dangerous confrontation over the debt ceiling.

Now comes the hard part for Boehner. Already, there is pushback from more moderate conservatives against the depth of the budget cuts that Rep. Paul Ryan will have to propose in in order to balance the budget in 10 years. At least some House Republicans may come to see a bipartisan Senate-passed deal as more attractive than the alternatives.

In the meantime, the House passed a continuing resolution on Wednesday to keep the government functioning until the fall. It provided the Defense Department with greater flexibility to handle the automatic cuts. The Senate and the House must agree on a bill by March 27, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, argues that flexibility on defense should be matched on "compelling human priorities" and in other domestic areas, including science and technology. Yet both sides seem committed to keeping the government open, which would create a kind of cold peace.

But this will not prevent the automatic cuts from becoming more noticeable, and they are likely to get more unpopular as time goes on. Their effects will be felt by, among others, air travelers, school districts, state governments, universities, and the employees of defense and other government contractors. House Republicans representing districts with large military bases are apt to be especially eager to reverse the cuts.

From Obama's point of view, engaging with Senate Republicans now to reach a broad settlement makes both practical sense, because there is a plausible chance for a deal, and political sense, because he will demonstrate how far he has been willing to go in offering cuts that Republicans say they support. In the process, he would underscore that the current impasse has been caused primarily by the refusal of House Republicans to accept new revenues.

While it's the GOP that has been using serial, self-created crises to gain political leverage, many in the party are no less worn out by them than the Democrats. "Even we are tired ... of lurching from one cliff to another," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. "I think that's lending some pressure towards trying to come up with some kind of a grand bargain."

Thus does the strongest reason for hope arise from one of the most basic human responses: exhaustion. 

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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I think your rose colored glasses of your pseudo savior Obama need some cleaning.  Republicans clearly understand the complexity of the budget which is why under Paul Ryan's leadership they have  passed 3 budgets that BALANCE and work down the debt and deficit in the least painful ways possible over the next 10-20 years. Meanwhile, even Democrats can't vote for Obama's pretend budgets, which don't even have the pretense of intelligent budgeting.  As well, the Senate Dems have been derelict of duty in not passing a budget in 4 years in order to avoid political ramifications of being realistic about budgeting. These self centered Senators lack the public servant mentality we need in our leaders.

As for Obama's outreach, it's the first time in his entire regime that he has recognized he's not a God, but a narrowly elect president with 49% who voted against him.  Despite the last 4 weeks of his nasty, vitriolic, childish, name-calling attempts to demean the Republicans, he now affects some mode of outreach.  HE has been the one to creat crises, running around sayign the sequester will starve childre, cause planes to crash, risk the health of our meat supply!!  Your suggesting that'it's been the Republicans is only due to your biased views not a rational analysis,  It's sad that he came to office with no expereince in team-building, leadership or budget management.  It's been reflected in the caustic environment he's developed and in the resulting, unheard of 4 year recession he's overseen and allowed to happen.

The hope should be that President Obama leaves his politicking aside and recognizes that he needs to leave the budget to those who have spent the time knowing and understanding it's complexities and it's long-term reamifications.


Thus does the strongest reason for hope arise from one of the most basic human responses: exhaustion.

Heaven help us. Most people, and I suspect most legislators and presidents, do their worst work when exhausted. Whatever compromise may arise from present discussion, envigorated by the President's new efforts at dinner-diplomacy, will be a poor substitute for the well-thought-out framework suggested by the President's own Bowles-Simpson Commission. Instead of desperately needed real tax reform, aimed at investment and job growth that boosts government revenues, our exhausted leaders will settle for tweaking the existing corporate and personal income tax systems. They will shake hands, congratulate each other, pronounce a new millenia of cooperation. In five or ten years we, the voters, will be left wondering why higher tax rates, fewer loopholes, and some spending cuts failed to provide the promised revenue growth and deficit reductions.

We should encourage our leaders to get some rest, have a few more casual dinners, maybe take a vacation, and come back ready to do the serious work of tax reform.

If the GOP thinks that it's outrageous to increase revenue steam  by stopping the loop holes that Romney used to get his tax rate at 9%.... until he told his accountants " 'm running for office for gosh sakes" they didn't take charitable deduction in 2011 so he paid 14% temporally.  

Dear Mr. Gravely,

I think that the Obama Presidency has been a case history of political masterwork, which will be a model for administrations to come. We all know the background story: sworn in, even as the economy was crashing to the tune of 750,000 lost jobs per month.  The foreign relations minefield of the Arab Spring, followed by the Arab conflagration. And so forth. 

To be where Obama is right now is impressive, from any point of view.  He's got the Affordable Care Act locked in (with even conservative opposition at the state level crumbling under emerging realities); the economy is shaking off the shackles of the foreclosure glut (housing traditionally leads economic recoveries, and there was to be no robust recovery until the foreclosure log jam began to clear); a partial reversal of the Bush tax cuts has been achieved and the President is in a strong position to chip away at corporate welfare; the foreign affairs minefield has been deftly finessed, although it will remain an ongoing threat.  With respect to enhancing his own political effectiveness and the political future of his own party, it's hard to see how he could have done any better.

Thus far, it's been the most remarkable performance by a national politician which has occurred in my lifetime.  Again, considering the problems (and oopposition he faced, at every single step of the way) to be where he is right now from the standpoint of political strength and administrative achievement is truly remarkable.  We tend to view things through the tunnel vision of immediate individual issues.  For a proper perspective, we need to step back and look at where he was, what happened along the way, and where he is right now.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Larry W,, great summery of the last 4 Obama years. The Obama knockers have Rand Paul's 13 hour rant as their major hope for rebuttal... and SB Gravely's rant above is about all they have to offer.

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