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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.

Of course, public comments and private negotiations are often two radically different things. But in today’s political climate, public comments resonate and shape the responses of political actors, causing recalcitrants to dig in even more. Maybe the likely deal on a continuing resolution to fund the government through September leads to a deal on taxes and entitlements — or maybe it leads to more “my way or the highway” posturing. Or maybe it puts increasing pressure on Boehner and McConnell to use the debt limit later this summer as the one remaining bludgeon to accomplish their policy goals.

The turmoil in Republican ranks reflected in the comments about the Republican National Committee report on the state of the party and in the back-and-forth generated by the Conservative Political Action Conference suggests many prominent figures in the party are open to real change, which includes pragmatic efforts to move from tax cutting and austerity obsessions to real problem-solving. But those prominent figures are countered by the Limbaughs, Palins and Cruzes who are in the never surrender camp.

In an ideal world, Corker, Warner and Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., among others, cobble together a deal that phases in the discretionary budget cuts and provides far more flexibility in their implementation, creates another tranche of deficit reduction of at least a trillion dollars over the next 10 years via a new budget resolution with reconciliation instructions to committees to do tax and entitlement changes to meet the targets and includes a new robust infrastructure package both to get the economy moving and to repair crumbling bridges and water mains and expand the knowledge and power grids — through borrowing at what is now near zero or even negative interest rates!

That package, along with an immigration overhaul and gun overhaul, should be in the no-brainer category. But the odds may still be with the no-brainers who want to thwart compromise and push confrontation.

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

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