Ganging up on debt

“I think what happened this morning is that the Gang of Six began to turn into a bipartisan majority of senators … I am ready to sign up. … I appeal to people: Don’t start to pick away at this.”

Those were the words of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Tuesday after the reconstituted Gang of Six senators presented a plan to cut federal deficits by $3.7 trillion over the next 10 years.

{mosads}The headline numbers on the package are 74 percent of savings from spending cuts and the remaining 26 percent from increased revenues. Every interested party is now looking under the hood of this gleaming new vehicle to see exactly how it works and whether, for example, the 3-1 ratio of cuts to revenue is concrete or snake oil.

Intriguing elements include the contention of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — who has rejoined the gang after a two-month sabbatical — that the package would be scored by the Congressional Budget Office as a tax cut because it eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax while closing loopholes.

The plan drew immediate support from both sides of the Senate aisle, with several lawmakers suggesting that it could garner the 60 votes needed to pass through the chamber. 

President Obama, at an impromptu appearance at the White House press room, offered an endorsement, noting it was “broadly consistent with the approach I’ve urged.”

Winning 60 Senate votes would be a singular achievement but would, of course, count for nothing unless the House also voted to approve it. There, the principal issue will be whether the conservative wing of the Republican Party accepts that the plan would do two things — make real and significant cuts to government spending and not increase taxes. Fiscal hawks still bear bruises from former deals that turned out to contain far less belt-tightening than advertised.

President Obama has been flexible, or vacillating, depending on your view, about how the fiscal crisis should be dealt with. Having originally asked for a “clean” vote on raising the country’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling — a vote, that is, without any spending cuts or tax reforms attached — the president moved during the spring into a position from which he berated Republicans for not thinking big enough about a grand bargain. 

The president has made frequent use of his bully pulpit as the debt talks have intensified and on Tuesday sought to share ownership with the bipartisan group’s plan.

What the president most needs is a deal before the Aug. 2 deadline, beyond which lies unexplored and uninviting territory in which America fails to pay its debts. Neither the president nor either party should want to go there. Whether the Gang of Six is offering them, and all of us, an acceptable path away from that grim landscape will become apparent in the next several days.

Tags Tom Coburn

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