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Raising the debt ceiling

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David Broder
October 22, 2009
— Within the next few weeks, probably as soon as the votes on health care reform have been taken, the Senate faces the painful duty of once again raising the statutory limit on the national debt, as the House already has done.

It is never fun for the party in power, but this year will be harder on the Democrats than ever. The final accounting on the just-ended fiscal year, delivered last week, showed a record deficit of $1.4 trillion, a gap that is the largest since the end of World War II when measured against the size of the overall economy.


The Republicans are poised to pounce. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell accused the Democrats of "acting like a teenager on a spending spree with his parent's credit card with no regard to who pays the bill."


The Democrats, in turn, blamed the George W. Bush administration for starting the deficit spending and say that they themselves had no choice but to spread the red ink in order to deal with the potential economic collapse they inherited.


The one barely possible benefit from this predictably futile partisan bloodbath is the opportunity it could offer to leverage support for a long-standing bipartisan effort to force Congress to confront the hard steps needed to put the nation on a safer fiscal course.


That chance was highlighted last week when Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and nine other moderate Democrats wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking that the debt-ceiling increase be tied to passage of bipartisan legislation creating a deficit-reduction commission whose recommendations would have to be quickly enacted or rejected by the House and Senate as a package.


That idea has long been championed by Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, respectively the Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the Budget Committee, but has never had enough support even to get out of the committee. A similar bipartisan bill has been blockaded in the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and key committee chairmen.


Despite the odds, Conrad told me that he thinks a Senate floor amendment to the debt-ceiling bill, creating such a commission, could win majority support. Gregg is influential among Republicans and both Conrad and Bayh believe more of their Democratic colleagues are feeling home-state pressure to curb these runaway deficits.


But the odds are against them. Because such a commission likely would propose both cuts in popular entitlement programs and tax increases whenever the country comes out of the current recession, those members on the ballot next November, including Reid and Pelosi, would much rather avoid any discussion of such steps.


Over the past year, including in a pre-inaugural interview with The Washington Post, President Barack Obama has repeatedly promised to attack the deficit problem, after economic recovery is secured, and not "kick this can down the road" to his successor.


But in meetings this month with the president, both Conrad and Bayh got the strong impression that Obama wants to wait until next year to put deficit reduction on his agenda. Bayh said that the president "understands the present (fiscal) path is unsustainable. I think he will make that point in next year's budget and maybe the State of the Union address." But not before.


That would certainly seem to be the easy course of political caution. But Conrad and Bayh think it is really risky. The massive spending in the bills Obama has signed and proposed has already led to a slump in his polls. In this week's Washington Post-ABC News survey, when voters were asked to rate Obama's performance on seven different issues, his lowest score -- 45 percent approval -- came on his handling of the budget deficit.


"People understand that we're stealing from future generations," Bayh said. "We're setting the stage for another Perot moment," referring to the 1992 campaign when independent candidate Ross Perot received 19 percent of the popular vote, making it impossible for incumbent George H.W. Bush to win a second term.


Bayh said he would be "very reluctant" to vote for raising the debt ceiling, absent "tangible evidence, not some ephemeral promise, that we will be getting the deficits down." But unless signals from Obama change, an ephemeral promise may be all the voters get this year.



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