WASHINGTON — The grand bargain may not be dead, but it has been given its last rites.
On Tuesday morning, as President Obama and House Republicans were abandoning hope of reaching a compromise to avoid across-the-board spending cuts on March 1, the indefatigable duo of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson made one more attempt to float a bipartisan compromise. They were literally shouted down. Seconds after Bowles and Simpson were introduced at a breakfast forum hosted by Politico, hecklers in the audience began to interrupt: “Pay your share of taxes! Stop cutting jobs! Stop cutting Medicare and Medicaid!”
“Wait your turn,” pleaded the moderator, Politico’s Mike Allen, as the half-dozen demonstrators were gradually removed.
After the ruckus subsided, Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, smiled. “You’ll note how sweet I’ve been in the last few minutes, which is not my trait,” he said. No, but Simpson and Bowles have learned to suffer indignities — and hecklers are the least of the trouble. The real insults are coming from the White House and the Capitol, where the two men and their happy notions of compromise are on the outs. How far out? Allen asked them when they last spoke with Obama, who had chosen them to lead his fiscal commission. “Personally, I suppose a year and a half, or something,” Simpson replied. Bowles considered. “Uh, before the election,” he answered. Bowles, a former chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House, was particularly grim as he made his latest effort to spur compromise. “The idea of a grand bargain is at best on life support,” he said at a news conference before the breakfast. Later, with the cameras rolling, he spoke gloomily about the failure to reach a comprehensive deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” “What we felt at the end of last year was a disappointment like no other that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “It was the time when we had the best chance to really do something serious.”
As if to show their lack of seriousness, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made their own statements later Tuesday morning devoted to blame-fixing. Obama appeared onstage with first-responders, their brass badges offset by navy dress uniforms. “Republicans in Congress face a simple choice,” he said. “Are you willing to see a bunch of first-responders lose their job because you want to protect some special-interest tax loophole?” Obama was so focused on scolding Congress for its “meat-cleaver approach” that he lost control of his metaphors. “We’ve got more work to do than to just try to dig ourselves out of these self-inflicted wounds,” he said. Boehner responded with a written statement condemning “the president’s campaign-style event criticizing his own sequester,” the term for the automatic spending cuts. The statement went on to mention “his sequester” and “the president’s sequester” three times.
Neither is offering anything close to a workable plan. Boehner’s is the most absurd. His House Republicans are proposing to balance the budget in a decade, which would mean cuts of $4 trillion over 10 years, without any tax increase. If Republicans are serious about exempting Social Security, Medicare and defense from cuts, they’d have to slash everything else government does by nearly 40 percent.
Obama’s plan is only slightly more sensible. He’s abandoned any thought of reducing the debt, planning only to stabilize it at its historically high level by reducing deficits by just $1.5 trillion over 10 years through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. He made a point of saying Tuesday that he is willing to cut health care costs over 10 years by the same level “proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission” — $400 billion. But that proposal was made in 2010, and the nation’s finances have since deteriorated. Simpson and Bowles said Tuesday that health care cuts would need to be $600 billion over a decade. That’s part of their new plan to shave $2.4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years; they would also raise $600 billion in tax revenue by limiting deductions, and cut an additional $1.2 trillion from farm subsidies, Social Security and other programs. Bowles on Tuesday restated the obvious: Obama needs to accept deeper cuts to the government’s health care spending, and Republicans need to accept more tax increases. But this assumes both sides want a grand bargain to right the nation’s finances, and it’s no longer obvious that they do. “These guys here aren’t interested in winning,” Simpson said. “They’re interested in making the other side lose — in fact, rubbing the other side’s nose in it.”
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.