Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Deal Emerges, Probably

At 10:39 p.m. Saturday night, ABC's Jonathan Karl reported the" key elements" which, "according to Democratic and Republican sources," comprise a debt ceiling agreement worked out, as best as can be determined, among President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

-A debt ceiling increase of up to $2.1 to $2.4 trillion (depending on the size of the spending cuts agreed to in the final deal).

-They have now agreed to spending cuts of roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

-The formation of a special Congressional committee to recommend further deficit reduction of up to $1.6 trillion (whatever it takes to add up to the total of the debt ceiling increase). This deficit reduction could take the form of spending cuts, tax increases or both.

-The special committee must make recommendations by late November (before Congress' Thanksgiving recess).

-If Congress does not approve those cuts by December 23, automatic across-the-board cuts go into effect, including cuts to Defense and Medicare. This "trigger" is designed to force action on the deficit reduction committee's recommendations by making the alternative painful to both Democrats and Republicans. (Karl believes that the Medicare cuts would be smaller than defense cuts and would be reduction in payments to providers, not to beneficiaries.)

-A vote, in both the House and Senate, on a balanced budget amendment.

Major Garrett of the National Journal has heard something similar but adds "no net new tax revenue would be part of the special committee's deliberations."

Assuming the reporting by Karl and Garrett is correct, there are still several questions left unanswered, details which may or may not become clear as the Senate vote, scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Sunday, takes place. Obviously, the mix of spending cuts is critical, as is whether the balanced budget amendment is the atrocious one approved this week in the House or less dangerous version(s) advocated by varied Democrats over the years.

Whether Congress by 12/23/11 would have to approve all the recommended cuts or perhaps only a majority of them presumably would be clarified, as would what constitutes a committee recommendation. Recall that the President's Executive Order establishing a fiscal commission required approval of 14 of 18 members before Congress would consider its recommendations. It failed to receive such a consensus and released a report nonetheless, which most of the committee's supporters since have pretended is an official, bona fide, decisive report.

"God is in the details," as the old bromide has it. Unfortunately, it is true also that "the devil is in the details." After months of controversy and with the President having at least three other options available to continue borrowing authority, Barack Obama finally may have a deal of some sort. If approved by Congress, a deal would be a betrayal of Democratic principles, require Congress and the President to cede some of its authority to a commission, and hasten the return of recession, but delight the White House.

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