published Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Surreal political theater

As political theater goes, the battle in Washington over raising the current $14.3 trillion federal debt ceiling has become as exasperating as it is interminable. The wait for a curtain call shouldn't take so long.

The Aug. 2 deadline for finding a compromise conclusion is fixed. The adults on both sides know the debt ceiling has to be raised to avoid an historic financial default by the United States government that would spawn a cascading catastrophe of stunting economic ripples in markets around the world. But tea party newcomers who haven't acted on such a dramatic stage before seem bent on creating a political tragedy -- and driving the economy over the cliff -- just to demonstrate how intractable, irrational and insensible they can be.

If this weren't so serious, it could be ignored. But alas, too much is at stake. We're compelled to watch it to the bitter end, even though the intense attention to it perversely increases the intransigence of the right-wing extremists who are blocking a compromise.

The predictable party-line vote in the Senate Friday to kill a Republican House proposal calling for a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget -- as a trade for an increase in the debt limit -- was just another set piece in this badly scripted play. It was never expected to do anything more than get tea party types on record as being formally in favor of an evanescent goal that most every budget analyst believes is decades away from reality.

It was necessary to get it out the way, however, to let the latest path for serious negotiations for a fiscal fix proceed. These talks, between House Speaker John Boehner and the Obama administration, have now sidelined both the McConnell-Reid plan and the Gang of Six plan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the most unlikely partners, have tentatively agreed on $1.5 trillion in budget cuts, mostly in discretionary spending. Though the plan includes no revenue increases, it would let Obama raise the debt ceiling incrementally in three steps. The Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six plan would reduce deficit spending $3.7 trillion over 10 years, with $2.5 trillion in projected spending cuts and $1.2 trillion in revenue from an overhaul of tax codes.

Neither of these plans, insiders say, would be as comprehensive as what is believed to be the scope of the secretive talks between Boehner and the Obama team. But the latter, reportedly, would be far superior to the intolerable slashing of $5.5 trillion from the nation's core safety net entitlements proposed by House Republicans, without any revenue offsets, under the toxic "cut, cap and balance" act put forth by tea party proponents.

Though the tea party plan will not fly, it illustrates the biggest dilemma before Boehner. To get a deal balanced enough in revenue gains to attract Democratic support, he must now calculate how many hard-right House Republicans he can afford to wave off, and he must consider the viability of his position as House Speaker if he risks ignoring his party's most intransigent faction.

Hanging over this equation are other unknowns: How Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid will fare in the showdown; how the bankrupting Bush tax cuts, now scheduled to expire in 2012, will be treated; and how far Obama will retreat from protecting the tax and revenue fairness his own party demands while Republicans are letting their right-wing base wield so much influence.

Democrats are all too aware that the run-up in the federal debt -- largely for tax cuts for the wealthy, for corporations and for two wars, all on borrowed money -- followed the old GOP strategy of running up the lion's share of the federal debt for illiberal Republican purposes, and letting safety-net entitlements for the middle class take the hit in the budget reckoning.

They rightly believe there now is no balance: Adjusted for inflation, middle class wages have stagnated or declined over the past decade, while the share of national wealth held by the richest top one percent of households has soared.

Obama and Democrats cannot afford to exacerbate this gross inequity by letting Republicans gut core social programs instead of demanding revenue from the corporate and wealthy elite that have gained so much on the backs of the middle class. Whether Obama and Boehner can lead Congress to a fair balance and a new debt ceiling agreement when the far-right is off the charts remains to be seen.

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