Ruth Marcus
Ruth Marcus
Opinion Writer

Still hopeful for a debt deal

Betting on Congress to do something — anything — is, as Samuel Johnson said of second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience. Betting on a lame-duck Congress to do anything of consequence is even more foolhardy.

Yet the Congress that limped back to town after the 2010 election was surprisingly fruitful. It extended expiring tax cuts, lifted the ban on gays in the military and ratified a nuclear arms treaty.

Ruth Marcus

An editorial writer specializing in politics, the budget and other domestic issues, she also writes a weekly column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Could the 2012 lame-duck session be similarly productive? I’m uncharacteristically optimistic — especially if President Obama is reelected.

This is not a partisan assessment. Congress’s primary post-election task will be to screech to a halt before plunging off the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and looming budgetary sequestration.

If Mitt Romney is elected, the well-honed instinct of Congress will be to do what it does best: punt. Romney has already said he would not want to see the lame-duck session try to craft some kind of grand bargain on taxes and spending.

Rather, he would prefer a reprieve of some months — extending the tax cuts, postponing the sequestration — to come up with his own plan. Would an exiting Obama really veto an extension? Would he have the remaining juice to force a bargain? It’s hard to see either happening.

Kicking the can in the event of a Romney victory is the safest bet and, in some ways, the fairest outcome. The voters will have spoken. Let the new president and the new Congress deal with the problem.

The calculus is different if Obama is reelected. The composition of Congress probably won’t have changed much; if anything, Republicans are apt to have a narrower House majority, providing an incentive for cooperation while the GOP retains greater leverage.

There are four pieces of evidence to support this admittedly rosy scenario:

First, a bipartisan group of senators has been working intensively to craft a deal along the lines suggested by the Simpson-Bowles debt commission: a stew of revenue increases, tax reform, spending cuts and entitlement changes.

Second, the administration has been working on a parallel track, with a debt-reduction plan to be unveiled soon after Election Day. Obama almost made it to the mountaintop once before with Speaker John Boehner. Whatever the reasons that deal unraveled — did Obama chicken out? did Boehner balk? — both men see a budget deal as a legacy moment.

Folks like me might have liked for the president to have spelled out a proposal, taken it to the voters and claimed a mandate for change. But, realistically, unveiling such details prematurely might have doomed both Obama’s reelection chances and the hopes of a grand bargain. Among other risks, the base would revolt over the entitlement changes apt to be included in any such deal.

Third, business leaders — shamefully silent on the debt-ceiling debate — may finally be stepping up to the plate. In a statement released Thursday by Fix the Debt, a bipartisan campaign led by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, 80 corporate chief executives are calling for “comprehensive and pro-growth tax reform, which broadens the base, lowers rates, raises revenues and reduces the deficit.”

Yes, raises revenues. Business leaders accepting the need for higher taxes may be the first step to getting Republicans to go along.

Fourth, in both an indication that a bargain is possible and an illustration of the obstacles to achieving it, the left is getting antsy about entitlement cuts. In an article for Politico titled “Americans don’t want ‘grand bargain,’ ” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned of a lopsided arrangement to lower tax rates for the wealthy while cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Meanwhile, the president was assuring the Des Moines Register that he was committed to achieving “the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time” — which included raising the eligibility age for Medicare and reducing Social Security cost-of-living-allowances.

There’s reason for caution. The same forces that prevented the supercommittee from reaching a bargain last year — triggering the sequestration process — remain strong. Time is short. As Obama warned, “It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant.” Even if a bargain can be struck, it may not be grand enough to get the debt down to a manageable level.

The president said he was “absolutely confident” about a deal. I wouldn’t go that far. But, long experience in Washington notwithstanding, I am oddly hopeful. With politics, as with marriage, there’s not much alternative.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

 
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