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Posted at 01:35 PM ET, 06/17/2011

In debt-ceiling debate, a surprisingly civil tone emerges


(Brendan Smialowski - GETTY IMAGES)

Something’s missing in the debate over raising the country’s debt ceiling: anger.

The highest-stakes political battle to date in the 112th Congress has been surprisingly absent the partisan rancor, name-calling and – for lack of a better term -- blamesmanship that typically mark most spending fights in Washington.

The civil tone that’s emerged in the battle over raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit this summer appears to be a product of the cordial working relationships that have developed among the principals in the White House-led talks, particularly between Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

But it also may stem from the tacit acknowledgment among all sides that even raising the specter of a federal default could have a catastrophic and far-reaching effect on the global economy.

Joining in the bipartisan goodwill this weekend are President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who are slated on Saturday to hold their first-ever “golf summit.”

No policy details are likely to be engaged on the links, but goodwill toward reaching a real deal may be enhanced.

The bonhomie is a far cry from the loud and personal attacks that have characterized most big Washington debates in recent years.

Consider recent statements made by some of the group’s principals as the debt-limit negotiators wrapped up their eighth meeting on Thursday evening:

Cantor, on Monday: “I think the success of these talks thus far is due to the vice president and the way that he has conducted the meetings. He has allowed for proposals to be brought forward that not everybody agrees to. ... We are, I believe, beginning to see the essence of convergence on savings begin to happen.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew, on Wednesday: “Conversations continue to be in the same constructive spirit. Everyone’s very focused on the importance of the work we’re doing.”

Joining in was House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who said on Wednesday: “I’m very optimistic.”

Alluding to the high-stakes negotiations, Senate MinorityWhip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters last Tuesday: “The pressure is on us to try to really do some good work here within the next month or so.”

The bipartisan bonhomie stands in stark contrast to some of the dramatic remarks made by congressional leaders in the last big spending fight, the battle in March and April over avoiding a government shutdown. In that fight, party leaders exchanged barbs and pointed fingers on almost a daily basis at each other over a potential shutdown , culminating in a series of nine press conferences in nine hours at the Capitol leading up to the deadline for passing a funding bill.

At the time, Democratic leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blamed the “tea party extreme social agenda” for holding up the funding talks. House Republican leaders responded by accusing Democrats of “playing political games intended to shut down the government.”

On the day that at least a temporary shutdown appeared a real possibility, the tenor of the debate had deteriorated into a shouting match in which Republicans argued that Democrats were insufficiently patriotic because they would not continue troop funding levels, while Democrats shot back that the GOP was waging a “war on women” over abortion funding.

Not only was the blame game at fever pitch, but leaders were publicly at odds with each other over whether they were making any progress in the funding talks at all. Democrats at times portrayed the talks as proceeding swiftly, with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in late March saying leaders were “getting close” to a deal.

That brought a swift retort from Cantor, who called Schumer’s “comments this morning that the negotiations...are going well are completely farfetched.”

To be sure, the current debt-ceiling debate has had its partisan moments. One of the sticking points has been over whether the Aug. 2 deadline set by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a firm date, and a group of more than 100 House and Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), has been vocal in its skepticism of a possible default if the ceiling wasn’t raised by then. Democrats and the White House have pushed back forcefully and often against that argument.

But by and large, where the previous funding debate centered on each side making the case that the other was rooting for a shutdown, this time around, party leaders have refrained from arguing that the other side is championing default.

One reason for that might be that the parties knew what the consequences of a temporary shutdown might be. The shutdowns of the mid-1990s demonstrated that while forcing the government to grind to a halt might not be the ideal way to resolve differences over spending, it wouldn’t cause irreparable harm to the country’s economy.

Not so for a potential default. The U.S. has never defaulted on its debt obligations . With the markets closely watching the course of the battle, even the perception that the Biden-led talks are progressing poorly could have grave consequences far beyond Washington.

On top of that, one of the more surprising turns in the deficit-reduction working group’s negotiations has been the apparent Biden-Cantor goodwill. Unprompted by reporters, the pair recently gushed about each other at two separate times.

At his weekly roundtable Monday, Cantor described himself as “very impressed” with Biden’s leadership in the talks and said that he has “kept the ball rolling.”

For his part, Biden returned the praise Thursday night, telling reporters that he’s “really enjoyed working with Eric Cantor – for real.”

“I mean, it’s been a great, pleasant surprise for me,” Biden said. “The guy’s smart as hell. I don’t want to ruin his reputation; I don’t want to hurt him. But he really is. He’s smart, and he’s been totally, completely straightforward and sincere.”

The apparent goodwill is all the more surprising given that the initial announcement of the Biden-led negotiations was met with low expectations on all sides. In April, when the talks were announced, party leaders in each chamber had tapped as their delegates members known more for their partisanship than for their willingness to compromise.

Does the civil tone of the debt-limit debate, then, mean the parties are more likely to reach a deal?

The real test will come later this month, when the negotiators begin to tackle the more difficult issues in the debt-ceiling debacle, which will force them to face fundamental party differences over key issues such as entitlement reform, health-care spending and tax increases.

“We’ve gone through all these discrete elements, and the really tough stuff that’s left are the big-ticket items -- and philosophically big-ticket items,” Biden said Thursday night.

With the parties having all agreed to work toward a “down payment” on the ultimate goal of deficit savings of $4 trillion over ten years, the key question going forward is likely not whether a deal will be struck, but the ultimate size of the cuts.

By  |  01:35 PM ET, 06/17/2011

 
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