WASHINGTON -- The nail barely thudded into the coffin of Congress' failed super committee Monday before all sides launched a barrage of blame, signaling what may be a year-long showdown over fiscal responsibility and fairness amid the Occupy Wall Street movement.
A year ago, Republicans seemed -- to progressives -- to win all of the key negotiations over taxes and spending, with President Obama agreeing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years.
Many on the left feared that after Congress created the super committee with unprecedented powers to move legislation, they would get rolled again, with Congress enacting deep cuts to the social safety net and requiring nothing more from the rich and corporations.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the chopping block -- Occupy Wall Street erupted, and made the idea of America's historic levels of income inequality a central part of the political debate -- and one that has potential to change the landscape. The death of the super committee may go down as the first evidence of that change.
"After Occupy Wall Street, a month later, you were getting a lot more attention to income inequality, and that's a tremendous change in the politics of the country," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Wall Street.
Nadler would not say for certain that the new dynamic prompted Democrats to take a tougher stand in refusing to accept cuts to Social Security and Medicare unless they were accompanied by sacrifices from the wealthy. But still, he told HuffPost, "That may be."
The movement's rhetoric is certainly reflected more and more in Democratic arguments, with numerous appeals to help the 99 percent. Policy and and political advocates on the left say it stems from the phenomenon that started in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in September.
"The general pattern was that the Democrats give more than they get, and their base was getting fed up," said Bruce Mirken, with the non-partisan but left-leaning Greenlining Institute.
"I think they were finally hearing from their constituents, whether they were camping out in front of banks or sending in letters, email, or making phone calls," Mirken said. "I think leaders in Congress who say they stand up for the middle class may have finally gotten a back bone from seeing all this support."
"A super committee working to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits was an absurd anachronism in the era of Occupy Wall Street -- in which the 99 percent are calling for Wall Street banks and the rich to finally pay their fair share," said Adam Green, a co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Good bye and good riddance."
Perhaps, but the debate will go on, and the reaction was starkly partisan. Even President Obama, who has often cast himself in the role of conciliator-in-chief at critical moments, didn't shy away from laying blame.
"To their credit, many Democrats in Congress were willing to put politics aside and commit to reasonable adjustments that would have reduced the cost of Medicare, as long as they were part of a balanced approach," Obama said in a speech early Monday night. "But despite the broad agreement that exists for such an approach, there are still too many Republicans in Congress who have refused to listen to the voices of reason and compromise."
Other Democrats offered a harsh assessment, as well, with super committee member Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) declaring the ideological divide was greater than ever, and that Democrats could not give in. "We would not give another $550 billion tax cut to the wealthiest. Shifting the tax burden to the middle class was not the way to reduce the deficit," he said.
Perhaps the the most-heated statements belonged to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blamed Republicans for catering to the fringe of their base. "The American people are tired of their elected leaders listening to the extreme voices in their party instead of the voices of reason," Reid said in a statement. "I am disappointed that Republicans never found the courage to ignore Tea Party extremists and millionaire lobbyists like Grover Norquist," Reid added, referring the the head of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
His office also cut a video of Norquist to emphasize that he took credit for the GOP's hard-line stance on taxes.
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement that Democrats' insistence on leaving the Bush-era cuts -- which expire after 2012 -- out of the equation amounts to a massive tax hike. He denigrated their position as "puzzling."
"In the end, an agreement proved impossible not because Republicans were unwilling to compromise, but because Democrats would not accept any proposal that did not expand the size and scope of government or punish job creators," McConnell argued in a line of attack often repeated by the GOP.
In a sign of how estranged and entrenched the sides are, none of the leaders thanked members of the super committee who were not in their own party for their efforts -- a customary courtesy de rigueur in such standoffs.
And the campaign committees made it clear that both sides see the deficit debate as pivotal to 2012. The National Republican Congressional Campaign fired off campaign attacks against 50 Democrats over the super committee's failure even before it was formally declared dead.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) waited for the official announcement, but didn't hold back in his reaction.
"The American people want an end to this gridlock with a balanced approach to reducing the debt that creates jobs, protects the Medicare guarantee, and brings shared sacrifice from the ultra wealthy and Big Oil," he said in a statement. "Voters have a chance to end this gridlock in November 2012."
The hostile language likely foreshadows a tough final month of the year, when Congress must deal with several major, expensive problems, including funding the government and helping the unemployed.
It was in extending unemployment benefits last December that Democrats caved in to demands to extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years. Occupy Wall Street may change that discussion this time around, and many on the left think that talk of economic fairness will shape the debate through 2012.
"It is a discussion that I think has finally gotten a place in the national spotlight that it deserves," Mirken said. "And I think it will make a difference."
UPDATE: Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. -- Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement on an "Occupy the Highway" march to Washington, D.C. saw the super committee's collapse as a victory, declaring in a press release as they arrived: "Super Committee Fail = Occupy Wall Street Win."
"The so-called Super Committee was a failure from the beginning. It was an attempt to do something undemocratic. Thankfully it didn't work," said Michael Glazer, an organizer of Occupy the Highway. "No one has the courage to stand up inside our corrupt political system and fight for regular Americans. So, we will continue to take a stand outside the system."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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