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How Obama can get beyond the debt commission deadlock

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During a White House meeting on Thursday, President Obama said he instructed his Cabinet members to make sincere efforts to change the way Washington works.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not yet two weeks after the voters delivered a clarion cry for change in Washington, we're already back to business as usual.

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Democrats in the House are set to keep the same three leaders - Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn - who led them to their historic wipeout. This is the preschool-soccer theory of accountability: Nobody keeps score and everybody gets a trophy. The fallen House speaker seems to speak for a number of her colleagues when she says she has "no regrets" about the past two years.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear that he would continue his all-out belligerence even though the campaign is over. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation, he renewed his assertion that his priority is "to deny President Obama a second term." He vowed to hold "repeated" - and pointless - votes in the Senate to repeal health-care reform.

Then, on Wednesday, the co-chairmen of Obama's debt commission, unable to forge consensus among the deadlocked commissioners, came out with their own version of a plan to conquer the deficit, reduce the debt, overhaul the tax code and put entitlement programs on solid ground. It was quickly pronounced dead on arrival by no-regrets Pelosi, who called it "simply unacceptable."

Is this how the next two years will look? Probably. But the outline released by the commission co-chairmen, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, also presents an opportunity for Obama - if he's willing to triangulate. He'll have to take the perilous path of turning against his liberal base, but it just might work.

The Bowles-Simpson plan has something to offend everybody, as it should. It would slash spending - including for the military. It would raise tax revenue by rewriting the tax code and eliminating popular deductions. It would seek to cut Medicare costs, reduce Social Security benefits and gut agriculture subsidies.

On the left, the sturm und drang was predictable: The National Organization for Women called it an "assault on Social Security," the AFL-CIO said it tells "working Americans to drop dead," and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the commission, called it a "non-starter."

It's unsurprising that liberals feel this way, because the plan is a centrist approach developed under the supervision of Bill Clinton's former domestic policy chief. It calls for a hard-to-swallow $2 or $3 in spending cuts (depending on whether you count interest payments) for every dollar of increased taxes.

There were similar reactions from some of the usual suspects on the right, such as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which proclaimed that "support for the commission chair plan would be a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge."

Interestingly, though, the reaction from Republican lawmakers has been significantly more favorable than McConnell's no-way, no-how view of compromise. Republican Reps. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) and Dave Camp (Mich.), all members of the commission, called it "a provocative proposal." Another commissioner, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said that "if we do the cuts, I'll go for it."

If a budget hawk such as Coburn can get on board, any Republican can. Beyond that, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which led the opposition to Democrats in 2010, conceded Thursday that "any solution will require commitment and sacrifice on both the spending and revenue fronts."

In those statements are the contours of a deal Obama could strike with Republican lawmakers such as Ryan, the incoming House budget chairman. For a president in urgent need of regaining his standing, the possible results must be tempting: a balanced budget, a shrinking federal debt, a long-overdue rewrite of the tax code, improving Medicare and Social Security solvency in the long run, and easing health-care costs. The political benefits could be equally enormous: taking over the main issue of the Tea Party and building a good relationship with business.

The questions are whether Obama is willing to stand up to Pelosi and whether he can weather the consequences of triangulating against the liberals. So far, so good. "Before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen," he said from Seoul, in an implicit rebuke of Pelosi. He also said that he's "prepared to make some tough decisions" and that "we're going to have to take actions that are difficult and we're going to have to tell the truth to the American people."

That's exactly the right message. Here's hoping the no-regrets Democrats and the no-compromise Republicans hear it.

danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 12. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.



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