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Money Changes Everything: Will the Battle Over the Budget Derail All Bipartisan Cooperation in 2011?

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With a bipartisan afterglow still in the air on the morning after the State of the Union -- the result of members of Congress agreeing to sit with "dates" from the other side of the aisle during the president's speech -- a collection of senior lawmakers gathered at a Washington panel last Wednesday to reflect on the possibility of cooperation across party lines in the 112th Congress.

The mood at the event, sponsored by Atlantic Media, might have been described as wary optimism, or maybe curbed enthusiasm. After a lame duck Congressional session that produced some unexpected bipartisan agreements last fall, the legislators on the panel saw grounds for both optimism and concern about Congress' ability to make progress this year on the nation's most pressing problems.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) was in the glass is (at least) half full camp - partly because of her experience of attending the State of the Union as the bipartisan "date" of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "I'm not just talking about the seating arrangement which was a lot of fun, just like a prom date, but also the fact that people were much more somber. It was less like a partisan pep-fest than it was people were actually listening to the president," she said. "I thought that was helpful for setting the stage for some serious work. I hope we always do that. I predict we will never go back at the State of the Union to sitting on partisan sides."

Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, the Senate Republican Conference chair, also thought the parties could reach some agreements this year. "The areas of cooperation are education, some in energy, some in trade, some in tax reform," he said.

But despite those assessments, Alexander indicated that he thought Obama's speech pointed toward a clash with Republicans who believe Congress' top priority this year should be reducing federal spending and narrowing the long-term debt. "The conflict that was most obvious in his speech," Alexander argued, "was the lack of urgency about the debt."

Alexander's complaint framed the real question looming over the coming legislative session. Is Congress on a full-scale collision course regarding the nation's debt? In advance of the 2012 elections, will the distance between the parties on this issue pre-empt action on virtually everything else?

At the least, Alexander thought action on the debt should precede everything else. "We believe the house is on fire when you're borrowing 42 cents on every dollar you spend," he said. "And when the house is on fire you don't continue filling out your college application, or go out and fill up the pothole in the street, or buy a new light bulb. You put out the fire and then you say, 'We can do these other things.'"

Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chair of the House Republican Conference, took a similar line, arguing that Washington should focus this year on cutting spending - including spending dedicated to major entitlement programs. "We need to have a serious, adult conversation about reforming entitlement programs," he said. Referring to the Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, who has issued a plan that would convert Medicare into a voucher system, Hensarling said, "He's at least a guy who put a plan on the table. The president has not put a plan on the table. And until there's presidential leadership, we will not take America off this ruinous spending trajectory."

Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Republicans for a lack of deficit-reduction ardor during the George W. Bush administration, which resulted in Bill Clinton-era budget surpluses being replaced by yawning deficits. "The deficit's important, but it's not everything," countered Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. "We have to deal with the deficit responsibly, and we have to understand it's not going to be done overnight. Some, I'm afraid, are using the deficit as a reason for really shrinking government."

This ideological chasm between the parties over the importance of the debt and how to deal with it threatens to stall bipartisan action on a number of other fronts. Energy, tax reform, education, trade, and even the hot-button issue of immigration, were all mentioned by the lawmakers as potential areas for bipartisan cooperation. But it's not clear how much time or energy will be left for those issues if Congress is consumed by a full-scale battle over the budget. During the siege of Stalingrad, after all, no one planned any cultural exchanges.

The irony is that if the parties seriously wanted to address the deficit - rather than score points against one other with competing approaches - they have lately received some invaluable guidance on how to do so. Obama's deficit reduction commission, which was led by Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, and the Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force, co-chaired by former Republican Senator Pete Domenici and Democrat Alice Rivlin both produced balanced fiscal roadmaps last year that drew support from across the political spectrum. Each report demonstrated that serious debt reduction could be achieved through spending cuts, revenue increases, tax reform and changes in entitlement spending.

Obama gave his debt commission report only the most glancing mention in his speech. But at the event, Klobuchar praised the report, noting it was endorsed by members ranging from Durbin on the left to staunchly conservative Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. "The debt commission was supported by everyone from Coburn to Durbin," she noted. "There are some very smart ideas in there."

Klobuchar's comments pointed to the great irony of the impending confrontation over federal spending, the long-term deficit, and the short-term approach of the federal debt limit. While these showdowns are likely to highlight the tensions between the parties, they should, in fact, underscore the necessity of more cooperation between them - because if there was ever an issue that no party can solve alone, it is the long-term imbalance between federal revenues and expenditures. That was the real message of both the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin reports: only a balanced program of spending reductions (including on entitlements) and revenue increases can truly tame the long-term deficit. And the only way to apply both ends of that equation is for each party to join hands in imposing it.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham turned up at the event only a few hours after returning from Afghanistan, where he had both fulfilled his military reserve duty and toured the country on a Senate fact-finding trip. He didn't endorse a specific plan to address the debt, but he accurately, even eloquently, described the spirit with which legislators should approach that problem - and all of the other pressing concerns awaiting them.

"Here's what I'd tell my colleagues about civility: go to Iraq and Afghanistan, and spend a little time around people [in the military] who have a common purpose," he said. "Nobody cares if you're a Democrat or a Republican in Afghanistan. They just care if you can do the job. And they don't shoot at us based on our party affiliation." Graham looked bleary-eyed after his long flight. But no one that morning offered a clearer vision of how Washington should approach the challenges awaiting it this year.