Getting to yes

A couple of weeks ago, before our big family camping trip got shut down by the shutdown (and, in truth, it might have been a washout anyway, due to the biblical deluge), I asked a colleague if Congress might manage to reach a deal to reopen the government in just a few days. She looked at me as if she’d never beheld so naive a human being. No, it’ll go to the bitter end, she said, all the way up to the debt ceiling deadline. She called it exactly right, of course.

As I’ve said many times, a good rule in Washington is: Assume the worst.

The immediate aftermath of the GOP’s futile battle against Obamacare is a Republican civil war. Read Erick Erickson at Red State and you see it all laid out: The battle plan going forward is entirely focused on fellow Republicans. The tea party Republicans want to oust the Republicans  who in crunch time would keep the nation from defaulting on its obligations rather than hurl themselves against a law that could not possibly be overturned.

Erickson writes:

“We have an opportunity to replace Mitch McConnell in Kentucky with a better conservative. We should do that. We have the opportunity to send a strong conservative from North Carolina and we should do that. Same in Colorado. Kansas looks to be in play. Chris McDaniel will declare his candidacy for the Senate in Mississippi. Conservatives will rally to him quickly. Tennessee could be in play too. The establishment has given conservatives a brilliant opportunity to advance against them and then against the Democrats.”

So that’s one storyline.

The other one is whether the current leaders in Washington have any conceivable path in the near term for getting to yes in their long struggle over taxes and spending. As my colleague Zach Goldfarb reports, the failure to reach any kind of agreement has meant no progress on growing the economy and improving the job market, and no progress on solving the long-term fiscal issues driven by demographics and rising health care costs.

Deranged optimist that I am, I tend to think that this is not an intractable dilemma. No evidence supports such optimism, of course. There are only so many times you can retrieve your musty anecdotes about Ronald Reagan cutting a deal with Tip O’Neill. The standoff has become infrastructural to some degree.

Here’s a revealing interview with Mitch McConnell by Robert Costa at National Review:

“McConnell: We’ll be back at it in January and February, but the issues will be the same. Keeping the [sequester] levels is a huge success, and I know because Democrats hate it.”

The sequester-level spending is the new bargaining chip for the GOP, even though everyone seems to agree that it’s the brain-dead way to cut government spending and it causes real harm to agencies and individuals who depend on government support.

Congress is supposed to pass budgets. It managed to pass a CR — a place-holder, in lieu of a real budget — only after the House GOP and some Republican senators put the country through the shutdown drama. It’s hard to imagine a Grand Bargain on the budget emerging in a town in which the very minor achievement of passing a CR required so apocalyptic a struggle.

Washington needs to fly in some game-theorists to work out a winning equation. In a sane world, national leaders could find a compromise formula that includes new revenue and targeted spending cuts. Neither side has the votes to get exactly what it wants; any solution will require that the lawmakers in a governing majority — mostly likely the same people who voted “yes” to reopen the government and avoid default — can turn to their supporters and say that, even if the result wasn’t perfect, they made the best of a bad situation.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · October 15, 2013