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Ornstein: Is Actual Change Finally Around the Corner?

It is very difficult to get a handle on the politics/policy dynamic going on right now. On the one hand, the green shoots I wrote about shortly after the election are showing some signs of sprouting. The progress on an immigration template coming from an informal bipartisan “gang” in the Senate has been very encouraging, and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s announcement of support for a path to legalization — which does not endorse citizenship for the undocumented workers and family members here now but does not repudiate it — suggests that a very broad bipartisan supermajority is feasible on an issue where the chance for change has gone from zero to 60 in a matter of months. The possibility of a bill to require tough background checks for gun purchases has likewise gone from zero to at least 50 since the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

And some acute observers believe a real chance exists for a broader budget deal, not a grand bargain so much as a mini-bargain, with some revenues from cuts in tax expenditures along with modest changes in the growth paths of Medicare and Social Security. On that front, there is no doubt a group of serious problem solvers — including Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va. — now sees such a deal as desirable and achievable, at least on the Senate side. And if a bill that provided $500 billion in revenue over 10 years via a tax overhaul in return for a comparable amount from changes in entitlements such as chained CPI and some modest means-testing on co-pays and premiums in Medicare passed the Senate with 70 or 75 votes, it would put powerful pressure on the House to bring it up and probably to pass it (albeit yet again with more Democrats than Republicans).

But for every promising development on this front — Corker’s comments about being open to revenue as part of a broader package, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, admitting that we do not have an immediate debt crisis — there is a discouraging one. The speaker’s new mantra, an impressive accomplishment of message discipline, that the president got his tax increase, that we have a spending problem, period, has been repeated often enough and in enough settings that it has to make his House Republican troops dig in even deeper against revenues, which is a formula for more gridlock. The open threats now by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Boehner that they will hold the debt limit hostage yet again, to demand more and deeper discretionary spending cuts (McConnell) and the repeal of Obamacare (Boehner) is a formula for disaster.

The call by many House Republicans to use the debt limit to force Obama to accept all the changes in Medicare and Social Security that the president has put on the table — but without the balancing revenues he has asked for in return — is particularly discouraging. Journalists such as Ron Fournier and The Washington Post editorial writers have criticized the president for not offering more explicit changes — this gesture shows how narrow and foolish that call is; the more he puts on the table, the more his adversaries use to bludgeon him.

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