I noticed a fair bit of good Democrats and Obama defenders throwing cold water on what Elizabeth Drew reported in the New York Review of Books about back-channel negotiations aimed at a “grand bargain” on the budget, tax reform and even entitlements. Jon Chait didn’t like the sourcing. Neither did Kevin Drum. At least Steve Benen acknowledged that there have been bipartisan talks happening in the Senate since at least December, but he doubted much would come of them.
A day or so later, the New York Times reports on… back-channel negotiations aimed at a “grand bargain” on the budget, tax reform and even entitlements.
The White House has already opened back-channel conversations to test Republicans’ willingness to negotiate about the soaring costs of Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security’s long-range solvency and an income-tax code riddled with more than $1 trillion a year worth of loopholes and tax breaks.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, all but invited Mr. Obama on Tuesday to start huddling about the issues, and a bipartisan group of senators held a third meeting to write debt-reduction legislation based on the recommendations in December of the majority of a bipartisan fiscal commission established by the president [...]
While no budget summit is imminent, Mr. Obama said he and Republican leaders are “going to be in discussions over the next several months.” He said moving forward required “a spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. And I think that’s possible.”
And the Washington Post basically had the same thing.
“This is not a matter of ‘You go first’ or ‘I go first,’ ” Obama said. “This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”
In the Senate, where the December deals were forged, Republicans were receptive to that message. But they argued that Obama missed a chance in his budget to send a signal that costly entitlement programs are on the table.
“Entitlement reform will not be done except on a bipartisan basis with presidential leadership,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters. “I’ve been inviting the president to have that conversation since he took office two years ago,” he added. “It doesn’t have to be in public. We all understand there are some limitations to negotiating significant agreements in public.”
More from CNN.
Here’s the lay of the land. Republicans want to hide behind the President in doing anything that cuts Social Security or Medicare. Surely they will turn right around the next election and accuse Democrats for implementing the cuts; consistency ain’t their strong suit. But it’s crucial to them that Democrats, not Republicans, kick off that conversation. The White House is basically resisting that push, and wants everybody to jump in the boat at the same time. This has been their longtime theory of governing – let Congress take the lead, say nothing definitive publicly, work behind the scenes. But the end result is exactly the same.
The Obama Administration has wanted this kind of grand bargain ever since they walked into the White House. They scheduled a fiscal responsibility summit with Pete Peterson as the lead speaker a month into their term (Peterson got dropped after public outcry). As Ezra Klein notes, the entire class of new people Obama brought into the White House – Bruce Reed, Gene Sperling, Jack Lew, Bill Daley – are deficit hawks who pursued deficit reduction in the Clinton Administration, and wanted entitlement “reform,” too, before the Lewinsky mess. Reed was the executive director of the cat food commission. And the Administration clearly believes they can take the deficit “off the table” and secure their futures in the next election. You’d have to be willfully blind not to notice what’s happening here.
The framework for this “grand bargain” is already in place, with the cat food commission report and the bipartisan group in the Senate using it as a baseline.
A bipartisan group of senators that has been meeting behind the scenes during the past several months is emerging as the focal point in a battle over spending with no obvious end in sight. The gang met again Tuesday morning and Democrats uninvolved with the group were tipped off about the talks at a lunch with colleagues later in the day.
Five of the six key members of the group are the usual suspects: Budget hawk Kent Conrad (N.D.) and wheeler-dealer Mark Warner (Va.) on the Democratic side, joined by conservative Republicans Mike Crapo (Idaho), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and the Dr. No of the Senate, Tom Coburn (Okla.).
The sixth man is Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip whose liberal bona fides make him an unlikely ally of the deficit hawks. A Durbin aide said that the number-two Senate Democrat has joined the group’s negotiations so that progressives have a seat at the table, arguing that such discussions would be taking place with or without liberal input.
At least two of those six Senators – Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn – are either personally or politically close to the President. Kent Conrad is retiring and doesn’t really care what happens. Four of the six voted for the cat food commission report (Durbin, Conrad, Coburn and Mike Crapo). They’re calling themselves the D-triple-C. Like the campaign committee.
Why deficit reduction needs to happen now is impossible for even supporters to explain. It’s just moral and just and we all have to share in the sacrifice. Of course, the people making the decisions won’t have to personally sacrifice at all, while those suffering the consequences of the decisions, who have almost no voice in them, will see their safety net in tatters and the economy a shambles as well. The other major country going full-bore for austerity right now, Britain, has seen GDP drop and unemployment rise as a direct result.
A few groups have raised concerns about these grand bargain talks, but not nearly enough to make them toxic. One such group, Democracy for America, organized a meeting between them and a Durbin staffer in Illinois. When talking about potential cuts in Social Security, the staffer told the organizer, an older woman, “Don’t worry, it won’t affect you.”
That’s how these people think. If they just exempt the power-brokers, they can make everyone else suffer. Never mind the fact that letting the Bush tax cuts expire and moving to the tax rates of the Clinton era would COMPLETELY END THE NEAR AND MEDIUM-TERM PROBLEM.