Debate over raising U.S. debt ceiling high on civility, low on anger

June 17, 2011

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 Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

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

Joining in the bipartisan goodwill this weekend are President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who are slated to hold their first “golf summit” Saturday. No policy details are likely to be engaged on the links, but goodwill toward reaching a real deal might 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 Thursday evening.

“I think the success of these talks thus far is due to the vice president and the way that he has conducted the meetings,” Cantor told reporters Monday.

“Conversations continue to be in the same constructive spirit,” Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew said two days later. “Everyone’s very focused on the importance of the work we’re doing.”

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

The good-naturedness stands in contrast to some of the dramatic remarks made by congressional leaders in the last big spending fight, when party leaders pointed fingers at each other in March and April on almost a daily basis over a potential government shutdown, culminating in a series of nine news conferences in nine hours at the Capitol leading up to the deadline for passing a funding bill.

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.

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 F. Geithner is a firm date. A group of more than 100 House and Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), has been vocal in its skepticism of a possible default if the ceiling isn’t raised by then.

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 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 United States 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 emerging rapport between Cantor and Biden. At his weekly roundtable Monday, Cantor, unprompted by reporters, described himself as “very impressed” with Biden’s leadership and said that he has “kept the ball rolling.”

For his part, Biden returned the praise Thursday night, telling reporters that “it’s been a great, pleasant surprise” to work with Cantor.

“The guy’s smart as hell,” Biden said, adding that Cantor has “been totally, completely straightforward and sincere.”

The goodwill is all the more surprising given that the announcement of the Biden-led negotiations in April was met with low expectations, as party leaders had tapped delegates 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 this month, when the negotiators 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.

With the parties having all agreed to work toward a “down payment” on the ultimate goal of deficit savings of $4 trillion over 10 years, the key question going forward is likely not whether a deal will be struck but the ultimate size of the cuts.

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