THE DEBT-CEILING negotiations may yet yield a reasonable compromise, though chances look increasingly remote. In the absence of a comprehensive agreement that raises revenues while trimming entitlements and discretionary spending, the debt ceiling should at least be raised enough to cover government expenses until after the next election. An ongoing campaign will make it harder, not easier, to achieve a broader agreement. More importantly, world financial markets won’t tolerate a repeat of the brinksmanship exhibited over the past month, and even a modest hike in borrowing rates, spurred by nervous investors, would saddle taxpayers with billions of dollars in extra debt-service payments.
Whatever agreements can be reached should be reached now. And yet Republicans are holding out for a shorter extension that would require yet another congressional vote on the debt ceiling before next year’s election. Does this mean that the Tea Party faction that has been setting the GOP agenda, and has defined even the closing of a private-jet loophole as a tax increase, thinks another go-around will yield a comprehensive agreement? Of course not.
It’s often difficult to understand all the ploys in a congressional negotiation. But the goal of Tea Party members appears to be to create another opportunity for their opponents - mostly Democrats but also moderate Republicans - to make a necessary but politically unappetizing decision. Then the Tea Partiers will take them on over it.
All the evidence suggests that President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner were serious about a deal that would combine major cuts in discretionary spending, adjustments in entitlement benefits, and the closing of tax loopholes in a way that would result in lower rates for all but also some new revenue for the federal government.
As unappealing as some parts of the deal would be for liberal Democrats, many of whom consider Medicare the heart and soul of the federal compact, they were willing to let their party leaders consider a broader deal. But Boehner and Senate Republicans, who were open to a similar deal, repeatedly ran up against the intransigence of a Tea Party caucus made up mostly of the newly elected GOP House members.
Tea Party followers are sincere in wanting to force a radical shift in the role of government, dramatically reducing health benefits for seniors and the poor, while paring away hundreds of other programs and reducing taxes even further. But lacking the support to impose that agenda through the normal democratic processes, they want to force a crisis that will extend into the next campaign. They are hoping to benefit from bad times and the disillusionment of those who hoped for serious action on the deficit.
Hence, they insist on forcing another vote on the debt ceiling closer to the election, and won’t let their party leaders accept a deal without one. Earlier this month, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell floated a “compromise’’ that would automatically renew the debt ceiling unless two-thirds of Congress votes against it. It’s a beautiful piece of political mischief. McConnell himself has said it’s essential to raise the debt ceiling. But his proposal would mean that the debt ceiling could be raised with Democratic votes alone, thereby achieving the result he wants but giving all Republicans a free pass to claim they wanted no part of any more debt.
Indeed, the last few elections may have taught politicians the benefits of the politics of obstruction, whether in the form of Democrats drawing a sharp line against President Bush’s privatization of Social Security or Republicans refusing en masse to vote for Obama’s health-reform package. But the recent actions of the Tea Party adherents belong to a different category of opposition. They’re not massing against some bold initiative of the other party, or steadfastly defending a program of their own. They’re simply unwilling to compromise in the midst of what even their party’s leaders have termed a crisis.
Too many mainstream conservatives, fearing the appearance of disarray in the GOP caucus, have been unwilling to take on the Tea Party extremists. Those who are keeping quiet now - or pointing fingers at Democrats to create the false appearance that both sides were equally unwilling to compromise - may have miscalculated. Voters cannot forget the damage done by this back-bench attempt to impose an ideology that most Americans reject. And voters should demand accountability not just from the Tea Party, but from those who enabled its utterly irresponsible actions.