Angry liberals seek silver lining in debt-limit deal

August 1, 2011

Dispirited liberals fumed Monday over the deal to raise the debt ceiling that would cut deeply across the government, include no new tax revenue from wealthy Americans and would not provide any additional stimulus for a lagging economy.

Most of all, they lamented President Obama’s failure to anticipate and overcome the leverage exerted by House Republicans who threatened to force a national default.

“It’s a surrender to Republican extortion,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who voted against the deal. “It’s one thing to say we want this, we don’t want that as part of negotiations. It’s another to say we will destroy the country and the economy if you don’t do what we want.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said he, too, was voting no because of the “dangerous precedent” by Republican demands. But most offensive, he said, were the cuts unmatched by any new revenue. “My constituents are suffering; they’ve lost their jobs and their homes, and now to cut the very programs that could have provided them with support while the rich are given a pass — it’s ridiculous.”

The ire burned hottest online, where liberal groups such as MoveOn.org mobilized opposition and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) tweeted that the deal was “a sugar-coated Satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.”

The White House dispatched Vice President Biden to lobby congressional liberals, and by day’s end some were reluctantly coming round. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led the way, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she would support the deal despite it being a Satan sandwich “with some Satan fries on the side.”

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he would support the deal only to prevent the “arson” that Republicans were engaging in with the credit limit. “These are lunatic demands, and I need to compromise because that’s an act of sanity,” he said.

Off the Hill, liberals searched for silver linings but came up with little more than the consolation that some of the particulars were not as damaging as they could have been.

Liberal policy experts decried the absence of the upfront economic stimulus measures that Obama had pressed for, such as an extension of the payroll tax cut and expanded unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the year.

The combination of cutting billions in spending and not providing any stimulus, they said, would undermine the recovery, a setback both for millions of unemployed and the Democrats’ 2012 election prospects.

“If anyone involved in this deal cares about jobs, it’s hard to see,” said Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. He also wondered how Obama expected to find room for his promised investments in research and infrastructure following a deal that so tightly constrains future spending. “It’s hard to see the president ‘winning the future,’ ” he said.

The deal calls for $900 billion in cuts over the next decade, one third of that from the Pentagon and the rest from other agencies. It also calls for a 12-person bipartisan congressional committee to recommend an additional $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings by Nov. 23.

If Congress does not pass such a package, a trigger would go into effect: $1.2 trillion in cuts starting in 2013, split between defense spending and domestic programs. The trigger cuts would affect Medicare providers but not Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare beneficiaries, which Neera Tanden of the left-leaning Center for American Progress pointed to as an “important victory” in what she called an otherwise flawed deal.

Defending the deal, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it would spare another debt ceiling fight before 2013 and that Obama would keep pushing to extend stimulus measures and to rally support for higher taxes on the wealthy. “I think that is, again, a debate he’s looking forward to,” Carney said.

The Democratic logic behind the deal is that the Republicans may support having some tax revenue in the second round of savings as a way to avoid deep Pentagon cuts, but some liberals place little hope in this working. For one thing, many Republicans have made clear that they prioritize their strong anti-tax stance over defense spending.

Some liberals also said that the prospect of a trigger with deep Pentagon cuts was not necessarily something to celebrate, despite their historic support for trimming military spending. A big whack at the Pentagon would result in job losses and would, under the trigger’s terms, be coupled with deep cuts in non-defense programs.

In addition, a sudden hit to the Pentagon would cause problems for Obama as he winds down two wars, noted Robert Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “It will put more pressure on the commander in chief than the Republicans,” he said.

Also declining to celebrate the trigger was another leading advocate of reining in defense spending, retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, now at Boston University. “The challenge Washington faces is to cut the bloated Pentagon budget without being capricious and arbitrary about it,” he said in an e-mail.

Even with the tough trigger, Robert Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, predicted that the new committee would be unable to agree on the next round of savings. House Republicans are too set against taxes, he said, and the Medicare and Social Security cuts that would be needed to produce the savings without taxes are double what Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) discussed.

As a result, Greenstein predicted a “cataclysmic” lame-duck session after the 2012 election, as the country faces the double whammy of the cuts called for by the trigger and the expiration of tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. Some liberals see this as Obama’s moment of leverage, when he can declare that he will sign an extension of tax cuts only on the lower income brackets, daring Republicans to let all the tax cuts expire if they do not go along.

Some liberals expressed hope that they would, at least, have public opinion on their side as the debate moved on, with the Democrats contrasting their call for higher taxes on the wealthy with the Republicans’ call for deep cuts in Medicare.

But the support for Democrats’ negotiating position in most polls only made more maddening the party’s latest concessions, liberals said. They acknowledged that Obama had few options with a default looming, but blamed him for not heading the crisis off by demanding that the ceiling be lifted as part of December’s tax-cut extension.

More generally, they faulted him for having adopted the Republicans’ framing on the need for austerity at a time when the economy still suffers from a lack of demand. This may have been intended to boost Obama’s standing with some voters, they said, but they feared it would have the opposite effect come Election Day.

“We’ll see whether it works politically, but I can tell you it’s not been good for the economy,” Mishel said.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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Giffords makes surprise return for debt vote

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