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GOP’s Plan for Debt Reform: Win in 2012

By Chris Stirewalt |

Senate GOP Doesn’t Believe Obama on Big Debt Deal

“There’s only one thing that is going to change the long-term trajectory on debt and spending in the federal government: the next election.”

-- Aide to a Senate Republican leader to Power Play on the way forward on debt-ceiling negotiation

As the chances for a big deal on debt and deficits evaporate in the heat of deadline negotiations, fiscal hawks are growing increasingly frustrated.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is releasing his “Back in Black” plan for massive debt reduction and four of his former compadres from the Gang of Six are rolling out their less-ambitious deficit plan.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing through the conservative-backed proposal for deep cuts now, spending caps later and a balanced budget amendment farther down the road.

None of these big-ticket items seem to be going anywhere before a projected government shutdown begins sometime in the next few weeks, so why bring them up now?

Part of it is the hope for a miraculous ending to this months-long debate in which a very liberal president and very conservative members of Congress decide to ditch their dogmas in the name of bipartisan compromise. It’s never happened before, but hey, there’s a first time for everything, right?

Part of it is the desire to be able to say “I told you so” when the grubby, short-sighted final product is produced. By putting a plan out now, lawmakers can take the high ground later on. “My plan would have tripled the [cuts/taxes on millionaires and billionaires/savings/etc.] compared to the compromise package.”

Part of it is also posterior covering. If the necrosis of a government shutdown starts to spread and the bond markets get jittery, Republicans and Democrats both want to be able to say that they had a plan to avert disaster, but the other side wouldn’t agree. Look for another round of this if a deal isn’t done this week as House Republicans quickly pass a short-term cuts and borrowing package.

The grinding reality of a divided government at the outset of a massively consequential presidential election is this: big deals don’t get done.

Fiscal hawks are angry that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working on a plan with Majority Leader Harry Reid that would make a total of $2.4 trillion in staggered debt-ceiling increases automatic unless Congress votes to withhold them.

The president likes this plan because it gets him through the election without facing a government shutdown. McConnell likes it because he gets to force multiple votes on a subject that Democrats hate. Imagine the ad: “Senator Gasbag voted four times to increase the national debt…”

McConnell also gets a new panel to provide suggestions for fiscal reform and spending oversight, a body that would likely continue to serve up policy offerings and judgments that frustrate liberal Democrats determined to block entitlement overhauls.

A top Senate aide explained the thinking to Power Play thusly:

“It comes down to whether you trust Barack Obama. Do you believe that the president is a closet moderate who is waiting for an excuse to be a fiscal reformer?” the aide asked. “If you do, then you would be right to work with him on a big deal.”

But the consensus among top Republicans is that Obama is not really interested in substantive cuts and is wedded to the idea of tax increases now and only modest changes to Medicare and Social Security later.

“If you believe that Barack Obama is a liberal who wants to use a second term to continue his reckless course of government expansion, then the right thing to do is to make sure he loses the next election,” the aide concluded.