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Republicans Tread Down a Dangerous Path

During April, May and June, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) regularly excoriated President Barack Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles plan, or at least the principles behind that plan.

Now, Obama has put on the table the foundation of a plan that not only embraces those principles but goes one step further with the promise of sweeping tax reform that could accomplish a raft of long-standing goals of market-oriented economists by reducing tax rates and simplifying the code.

The formula of the Simpson-Bowles plan, which was embraced by strong conservative Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and  ex-Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H), was three parts spending cuts for one part tax increases and is the formula Obama has put forward for a giant leap toward stabilizing our debt situation over the long term.

If that formula prevailed — and especially if it took into account the American economy’s current deep weakness by making significant tax cuts (like the payroll tax) for the next year and coupled that with an infrastructure bank based on a public-private partnership, a pledge for serious cuts in the growth of all areas of spending over the next 10 years and a formula like the Domenici-Rivlin commission’s “save-go” to lock in the pledge — it would almost certainly result in a leap in confidence by the markets and a big plus for the economy and American workers.

And it would, in one fell swoop, accomplish a series of goals that conservatives have sought for decades.

It is now clear that Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and their allies don’t want that kind of outcome. Although McConnell on Sunday paid lip service to dealing with the debt and deficits, he reiterated that his No. 1 goal for 2012 is to make Obama a one-term president. A blockbuster, bipartisan debt plan that aims for the middle, as the Simpson-Bowles plan and the framework of the Senate “gang of five” do, would work against that goal.

It might well be true that the votes are not there in the House, or perhaps the Senate, for such a deal — that the House Republicans are now so captured by their rigid extreme that any plan that includes any revenue component won’t make it through.  In times like these, where a weak economy could be sent into a serious tailspin by gridlock and an unprecedented breach of the debt limit, leadership should take on those forces head-on — not encourage and incite them, as Cantor and McConnell have done, or just capitulate to them, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) appears to be doing.

As Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget demonstrates clearly, solving the debt problem through spending cuts alone is a nonstarter. Ryan’s plan — which involves draconian cuts to discretionary domestic programs such as food safety, scientific research and homeland security, along with huge cuts in Medicaid and the radical transformation of Medicare — adds trillions to the debt and doesn’t balance the budget for decades.

Ryan’s plan, the best there is to show how to achieve fiscal stability through spending alone, nonetheless violates for decades the provisions of the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution endorsed by all 47 Senate Republicans.

Holding hostage the debt ceiling — meaning the full faith and credit of the United States to pay obligations incurred in the past by this Congress and its predecessors —  threatening to take the risk of creating a depression or at least a serious recession unless all one’s demands are met, is simply reckless.

And to the list of reckless, add presidential candidates such as Tim Pawlenty, who is so intent on catering to his party’s extreme wing that he has encouraged a breach in the debt ceiling.

Just as reckless is the new “It’s not our problem” message House Republicans reflected in the comment by a once-grown-up veteran Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.).

“This is mostly debt we didn’t run up. ... These were mostly Democratic spending plans, and the idea that we would raise taxes to pay for programs we voted against? That’s a pretty hard sell.”

Tom, what planet have you been on for the past decade? We went from $5.6 trillion in surpluses in 2001 when Republicans had the presidency and the majority, to $14 trillion in debt now. Pew has estimated that four-fifths of the change comes from Bush administration policies — tax cuts, two wars, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug program — that you voted for.

For the most part, opinion leaders who could make a difference, spur political actors to take on more of a leadership role and counter irresponsible players — such as media personalities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others who are pointing toward a confrontation — have abdicated their responsibility and will bear a share of the blame if the worst case happens.

Of course, it might not. Perhaps all the posturing will end in some kind of patchwork deal to enable us to limp through November 2012. If Obama gets re-elected, we will have a new set of negotiations and confrontations. Although next time, with a major lever on Obama’s side — the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — that might be handled in a different fashion than it was this past December.

If Republicans recapture the White House, we will see whether their grand experiment — the Ryan budget on steroids — will pass public muster. For the good of the country and the political process, it would be far better to get the grand bargain now and settle back into the better kind of bickering, working out the specifics of how to cut programs and how to restructure the tax system.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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