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After spending a little more than a year ramming their heads into a brick wall, congressional Republicans and their allies have taken their first positive step: They have stopped doing it.
The GOP’s decision not to fight on raising the debt ceiling next month gives the party the opportunity to pause, catch its breath and prepare for a fight on the future funding of the government, far more favorable terrain than a fight over whether to pay for obligations already incurred.
Congressional Republicans are still suffering from one of their biggest mistakes in recent memory — their decision not to fully embrace the final plan proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also called Simpson-Bowles.
Had the three House Republicans on the commission — Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan — joined the 11 commission members (including three GOP senators) who voted to accept its recommendations, Congress would have had to vote on the plan without amendment.
The final plan would have required more than $1.6 trillion in discretionary spending cuts, added almost $1 trillion in new revenue (coming largely from tax changes but also from higher taxes) and saved billions by raising the retirement age and making additional changes to Social Security.
Of course, Simpson-Bowles probably would have failed to win congressional approval. House Democrats were against the compromise, and most House Republicans probably would have rejected the deal anyway, just as they did when, less than a year ago, the House voted 382-38 against a Simpson-Bowles-like proposal pushed by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and then-Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio. Only 16 Republicans voted in favor of the plan.
Supporting the plan would have given Republicans bipartisan cover for a comprehensive deal, which, in retrospect, looked pretty good for them.
Liberals surely would have attacked the deal and complained of draconian spending and entitlement cuts, but the process — and support from pragmatic Democrats such as Erskine Bowles — would have undermined that Democratic message.
Republican stubbornness about refusing to even consider any proposal that would raise taxes, even one with significant spending cuts and entitlement changes, has hurt the GOP dearly, putting the party for the better part of two years in the unenviable position of defending millionaires from higher taxes.
And, of course, the party eventually caved on that line in the sand in the New Year’s Eve deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but those at the highest levels of income, though Democrats gave some ground on the threshold for higher tax rates and the estate tax. Still, Republicans could have gotten a much better deal — and certainly put themselves in a much better position politically — if they had embraced Simpson-Bowles two years ago.
Now, after losing the fight on taxes, Republicans need to change the discussion by getting voters to focus on the nation’s debt both as a drag on the economy and as a fundamental threat to the nation’s long-term economic well-being.