Monday Catch-up: Fear and Loathing in Washington
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Monday Catch-up: Fear and Loathing in Washington

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Fear and Loathing in Washington

As of late Sunday afternoon, there was still no debt-ceiling deal, with Republicans and Democrats continuing their dangerous game of brinksmanship.

On Meet the Press, David Gregory asked conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma:a “What is your message to those in the Tea Party caucus in the House about tax increases and what needs to be done to get a deal?”

“Well, ideally, we would not have tax increases,” said Coburn. “But to get a deal, if we eliminated ethanol blending tax credits, wind energy tax credits, tons of other tax credits, then we could get a deal and what that would not do is impact the average American, would not raise rates. We should use that money to lower rates, but with that get significant fundamental entitlement reform and discretionary spending reform.”

But besides the gaggle of plans and all the dire warnings for the financial markets and domestic and global economies, the riveting debt-ceiling drama in Washington may have unintended consequences for the House, the Republican Party, and the President.

That’s because it is showing America true colors, truth behind rhetoric, and an absence of authority veiled in once-mesmerizing oratory.

The House, we have discovered, is led by a general who cannot control his colonels, let along his troops—or at least those apparently unconcerned about damaging America’s credit rating and probably causing untold hardship to prove an ideological point.

The larger point for the Republican Party is that it is fracturing. The party Establishment is running scared, stumbling and skinning its knees as it attempts to satisfy the ideologues. But it never will. Meantime, the Young Bloods with their pledges for this and for that can only see the promised land--not the hard streets of compromise they must travel to get there.

At some point, unless the Young Bloods have an epiphany, the GOP Establishment will say enough and stop pandering and there will be a split, which will be good for the Democrats. So in one sense, the hard line House ideologues have taken may hurt the country in the short run if it plays out—but it will hurt them even more. They will have revealed the deep divisions among Republicans, not to mention their own inability to govern by compromise. Which, of course, was the design of their dearly beloved Founders.

As conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said last week on The McLaughlin Group: “So I think what you're going to get is an increase in the debt ceiling and maybe some small budget cuts. But this has been an historic opportunity that the Republican Party had to use this debt ceiling to place cuts and send them down to the White House again and again and again…. And frankly, they could have rolled back the federal government. And they have failed to do it, and they have lost the opportunity because they're too deeply divided.”

The President won’t walk away from this distressing showdown unscathed either. After appointing a savvy deficit commission headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, Obama proceeded to ignore their smart recommendations and essentially do nothing. Then he lobbed the debt-ceiling hot potato to Vice-President Joe Biden, whose Gang of Seven reportedly got about half a loaf cooked before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and essential ingredient in any deal, stalked off.

Since the 11th-hour point at which the Obama personally intervened, he has proved an ineffectual negotiator—and he himself took his Presidential Seal and walked during one particularly heated session. Just when his storied cool was needed, he lost it.

Even conservative columnist David Brooks, who has spoken highly of Obama in the past, was dismayed by the President’s tone at his press conference last Friday. “[Acting as if he is] the only adult in Washington, everyone else is a child, that he’s going to summon people to the White House as if they are kindergarteners--even if you agree on the substance, it’s kind of hard to go along with someone who is insulting you all the time,” Brooks said on PBS Newshour.

So when the August 2 (the date by which a debt-ceiling deal must be reached) denouement is done and people evaluate the performance of the country’s chief executive in doing the public’s business at a moment of extreme crisis, how will this President going into a vicious election year be judged?

In framing a question for Treasury Secretary Tim Geither, Fox Sunday’s Chris Wallace said: “The President talks about the importance of getting serious about our national debt. But I want to look at the record with you, Mr. Secretary…. In December, the President's own debt commission called for $4 trillion in cuts. Mr. Obama didn't endorse any of them. In January in his State of the Union speech, he didn't mention the word debt until 35 minutes in. In February he proposed a budget to cut the deficit only $410 billion over 10 years. The Senate rejected that 97-nothing. And in April, he offered another plan that was so fuzzy, the head of the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] said we don't estimate speeches. Meanwhile, Mr. Secretary, Republicans have offered specific plans to deal with the national debt.”

“Plans that would devastate the economy, devastate the country,” said Geithner.

“But why have you had no plan?” Wallace asked

“Chris, that's not fair,” said Geithner. “I know the Republican leadership says it. But it's just not true. …The Republican plan that passed the House of Representatives and the Republican brought forth in the Senate would, in the estimate of the CBO, require beneficiaries of Medicare to pay $6,500 a year more for Medicare benefits than they do today. And why are [Republicans] doing that? They are doing that because they want to preserve -- I don't think the Speaker says this -- but they want to preserve tax cuts that benefit the top 2 percent of Americans that we simply cannot afford.

“…They demonstrated in their plans…that if you try to [balance] our budget without revenues, with tax reforms that raises revenues, then you are forced to put in place exceptional harsh cuts not just for Medicare beneficiaries but for Medicaid. And remember this great nation with our great resources, today one in eight Americans are eligible for food stamps today. Forty percent of Americans born today are born to families eligible for Medicaid.

“The idea that you can ask the American people to balance this budget on the backs of the elderly and the most vulnerable with no burden through tax reforms on the most fortunate Americans is fundamentally unacceptable. It's not going to happen. They knew it. It's not going to become law.”

Later on Fox Sunday, Senior Political Analyst Brit Hume—sounding more like a GOP strategist than a commentator--suggested that the House just raise the ceiling and move on to the next battle.

“Remember, now, what are talking about here is to enact something that would keep the government going for a while,” said Hume. “…And there will be another day of reckoning down the road. I mean, this is simply a measure to keep the government open for a while. But there is just no real budget. …We have a long way to go, and we're going to be fighting this fight, it seems to me, again and again, which is why I think House Republicans would be wise to say, ‘Let's take what we can get on this’ and go along with our leader.”

On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer asked Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia: “What has happened to our Congress here? I mean it appears to be totally dysfunctional. It can't seem to address any serious issue head-on anymore.”
“You know,” said Chambliss, “the atmosphere has gotten worse and worse. And today is just very, very difficult to get Republicans and Democrats to sit down together and have serious conversations about these complex problems.”

Perhaps the harshest words for Washington have come from newly declared Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer (who joins a race that’s more crowded than Cooney Island beach on a 103-degree day).

The former Louisiana Governor (and former Democrat) described Washington to Greta Von Sustern of Fox’s On the Record this way: “It's a circus. These people are clowns. They are wearing make-up. They don't tell the truth. There's no plan to reduce the deficit or to manage it.”