A ‘grand bargain’? So not happening.

October 3, 2013

Here's the indefatigable Bob Costa on the latest Republican gambit to solve the government shutdown:

"House Republicans tell me Speaker John Boehner wants to craft a 'grand bargain' on fiscal issues as part of the debt-limit deliberations, and during a series of meetings on Wednesday, he urged colleagues to stick with him."

Adds Costa, quoting one unnamed House Republican: "It’s the return of the grand bargain.... [Boehner's] looking hard at the debt limit as a place where we can do something big.”


U.S. President Barack Obama, center, speaks while House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, left, and Harry Reid, a Democratic Senator from Nevada, during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in recently. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

Sounds interesting, right? A grand bargain to put our fiscal house (and House) in order is something that both sides have been talking about for the last several years -- from the summer of 2011 to Simpson-Bowles.

But, dig even slightly below the surface of the "we are going toward a grand bargain" talk from House Republicans and  problems start to emerge.

Again, Costa. "What’s not being discussed: increased tax rates or revenues."

Remember that what makes a bargain "grand" is that both parties give on something near and dear to them. For Democrats, that's entitlement reform and, in particular, Medicare and Social Security. For Republicans, that's revenue increases -- particularly on high-income earners.

The idea, forwarded by Republicans via Costa's reporting, is that tax reform and agreeing to raise the debt ceiling would be the concessions they are willing to make in exchange for entitlement reform. That is, of course, a non-starter for the White House and Senate Democrats since President Obama has been steadfast in his insistence that he will not negotiate around the debt ceiling.

There are plenty more reasons to think a grand bargain is simply not possible -- even if Republicans did move to a place where they were willing to put revenue on the table.

Rewind to the summer of 2011 when Boehner and Obama were engaged in, by all accounts, real conversations about something approaching a grand bargain. Obama was a president with middling approval numbers looking to demonstrate to independent voters that he could make Washington work and bring about the sort of big changes he promised during the 2008 campaign. Boehner was 18 months (or so) into his speakership and had yet to fully grasp the depth of his problems within his own conference. And, most importantly, Boehner and Obama had some sort of working relationship.

Fast forward to today. Obama got re-elected, a victory that he and his senior advisers believe was a validation of his policies on the economy, his health care law and, more broadly, his approach to governing. Boehner is now three years into his speakership. With the failure of his "plan B" on the fiscal cliff, the fights over Hurricane Sandy Relief and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization and the failure of the original farm bill, one thing is now abundantly clear: there is a semi-open revolt against his leadership among 40-45 cast-iron conservativesReaching across the aisle to Obama could well end his time as speaker.

And, the collapse of the grand bargain of 2011 did damage to the Obama-Boehner relationship that still hasn't been repaired (or come close to being repaired). Boehner has said publicly that he will never again negotiate one-on-one with Obama, and the president barely masks his disdain for a Republican leader who he believes either won't or can't lead.

Add it all up and here's what you get: The possibility of a grand bargain seems remote -- at best. At this point, a medium bargain -- some combination of tax reform and minor entitlement reform coupled with reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling -- even seems like a long shot. It may be time for Congress and the White House to lower their collective aspirations.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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