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
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
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
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.