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A moment of truth, betrayal

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David Broder
January 28, 2010
— On the very same day this week when the Congressional Budget Office warned that the succession of previously unimaginable trillion-dollar-and-more budget deficits could inflict ruin on the United States, the Senate faced a moment of truth.

For the first time, a truly bipartisan proposal aimed at averting such a calamity came to a vote. By 53 to 46, the senators approved the measure officially described as a bill for “responsible fiscal action, to assure the long-term fiscal stability and economic security of the federal government of the United States, and to expand future prosperity and growth for all Americans.”


Of course, this being the 21st-century Senate, it meant defeat because of a failure to command the 60-vote supermajority the opposition now always requires.


As President Obama delivered his first formal State of the Union address, the reigning journalistic cliche described the “angry, frustrated electorate” he confronts. If you want to know where this anger should really be directed, look at Tuesday’s Senate roll call and focus on the 22 Democrats, 23 Republicans and one independent who combined to scuttle what one sponsor has called “the last, best hope” to avert a catastrophe.


These are the men and women who placed politics above the long-term needs of the country and rewarded their own narrow constituencies, rather than serving the national interest.


The measure the Senate debated and defeated came out of the anxiety experienced by its own budget committee. The chairman, Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and the senior Republican and former chairman, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, had seen deficit spending explode as the previous administration refused to raise taxes to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the expansion of Medicare and other domestic programs.


Two years ago, Conrad and Gregg agreed that with Congress gridlocked, the best hope was to create a commission of small size but large scope—empowered to examine without limits everything on the spending and revenue side of government. If 14 of its 18 members, chosen by the leaders of both parties in Congress and by the president, could agree on a recommendation, it would go without delay—and without amendment—to the House and Senate for a vote.


Passage would be subject to a double bipartisan test: First in the commission itself, where neither party would “control” more than 10 votes, and then in Congress, where majorities of 60 percent would be required in both House and Senate—all still subject to presidential veto.


Despite all these procedural safeguards, leaders on both sides balked. It took a delegation from Capitol Hill, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, to persuade him to implore President Obama to lend his support—which he did only Saturday as part of his newly discovered passion for reducing some government spending.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remained adamantly opposed, right up to the end. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his deputy, Jon Kyl, both rejected it. This encouraged special-interest lobbies from all sides to pressure individual senators to vote “no.”


It was a curious coalition, with the liberal blog Daily Kos and organized labor urging Democrats to “protect Social Security and Medicare” from any changes, while anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and big parts of business warned Republicans not to countenance anything that might conceivably lead to higher taxes.


Conrad told me the names of six Republicans who had once supported the bill but ended by voting “no.” Gregg, in a separate interview, confirmed the list, saying, “We couldn’t hold them against the pressure.”


I hope this vote is remembered in November.


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At a moment when the Senate was proving its fecklessness, one of its finest alumni, Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, died at age 87 after a long, productive life. Fearlessly independent, quietly courageous, utterly charming, he was everything the Senate today needs and lacks, a model for what voters should seek, in this year’s election.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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