Senate Dems throw a curveball

SENATE DEMS THROW A CURVEBALL…. The budget playing field has been frustratingly narrow the last several weeks. Policymakers started with the 2011 budget proposal as a baseline, and at least in the House, set out to cut tens of billions of dollars from only one small chunk of the larger budget — non-defense discretionary spending.

And so the debate progressed, painfully, with Democratic leaders eyeing about $10 billion in cuts and Republican leaders demanding more than $60 billion in cuts, all from the same small pot. The final answer was likely to fall somewhere in between — the question was when they’d strike a deal, and how awful it’d be.

Today, Senate Democrats decided to throw a curveball. The debate has become overly narrow, they said, and it’s time to broaden the playing field.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called the Republican Party’s bluff on the need for deficit reduction Wednesday, outlining a fiscal framework that involves broader cuts and revenue raisers than the GOP has proposed — and warning that there will be no agreement on funding the government unless the GOP broadens its approach.

“A bipartisan compromise simply will not be found in the domestic discretionary spending cuts alone,” Schumer said in a half-hour presentation at the Center for American Progress. Without a broader scope, Schumer said, “we won’t be able to come to a compromise on a seven month budget.”

Just as important, Schumer emphasized a distinction that’s gone largely overlooked thus far: “Right now a very small, very intense ideological tail is wagging the dog over in the House of Representatives. Their fervor for spending cuts is not grounded in deficit reduction at all. Instead the far right wing has deliberately confused two separate issues. They’ve conflated reducing the deficit — which is not their true priority — with cutting government — which is.”

And with that, Schumer began moving the game from the GOP’s field, where Dems have been losing, to a bigger venue.

Schumer endorsed the approaches taken by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom reduced or eliminated deficits by cutting discretionary spending and addressing entitlements and tax revenues. He identified achievable savings on all three flanks, including cuts to defense spending, agriculture subsidies, and a surtax on millionaires and billionaires.

“I noted with interest last week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, the most popular proposal to reduce the deficit out of 23 options surveyed was a tax — a surtax — on millionaires and billionaires,” Schumer said. “It’s not only a popular thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.”

Good for Chuck. For weeks, the Republican line has been that we’re in the midst of a budget crisis — which they prefer to forget they’re largely responsible for — but the resolution must come by approving brutal, job-killing cuts to a small portion of the larger budget. Schumer, in effect, was telling the GOP it’s time to expand the party’s horizons — if there’s a genuine crisis, why not look at the rest of the budget, too?

Ezra Klein had a good item on this earlier, saying “it’s about time” Democrats did this.

There’s not much money to begin with in non-security discretionary spending, and because it’s such a popular place to search for cuts, there’s not much waste, either. It’s like trying to clean your house by doing more and more to organize the hallway closet. It might help the first few times, but eventually, you have to head elsewhere. […]

This might prove a clarifying moment. If Republicans are only willing to consider cuts to non-defense discretionary spending as part of a deficit-reduction deal, then whatever their aim is, it’s not really deficit reduction. That’s not how you reduce the deficit. If they’re only willing to consider deep cuts to this year, as opposed to policies that would save a larger amount of money over the next few years, then it’ll raise the possibility that they’re motivated more by the specifics of an unwise campaign promise than by concern over the budget. Either “we’re broke” or we’re not. But if the answer is that we are — and that’s certainly what John Boehner has said in the past — then it’s time we started acting like it. The idea that you can balance the budget simply by doing things liberals don’t like and Americans don’t notice is a campaign fiction, not a plausible fiscal philosophy.

The fact that congressional Republicans aren’t sure how best to respond to Schumer’s move is probably a good initial sign that Senate Dems are on to something here.