The prospects of a ‘grand bargain’

THE PROSPECTS OF A ‘GRAND BARGAIN’…. Rumors occasionally make the rounds about a “grand bargain” between Democrats and Republicans. The idea is based on the notion of an all-inclusive compromise that would encompass deficit reduction, tax reform, the debt ceiling, and giving entitlements some sort of haircut.

In a piece that made the rounds yesterday, Elizabeth Drew writes in the New York Review of Books that such an agreement is no longer just an abstraction.

[D]espite all the confrontational rhetoric between the two parties about budget priorities, the White House and Republican congressional leaders, in private talks, have agreed on the need to try to reach a bipartisan “grand bargain” over the budget — a sweeping deal that could include entitlements and tax reforms as well as budget reduction. A Senate Republican leadership aide confirmed this, saying, “In fact, for anything to happen, it will require such a White House/congressional leadership bargain.” The preferred idea is that, just as they did late last year on the tax bill, they would reach an agreement and then unveil it to the public.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of leading senators have met in an effort to cut the deficit — which could become a part of the debt-reduction puzzle. The thinking is that the Tea Party allies might be brought along in the end, because their primary goal is to reduce the deficit. The details will be difficult, but a surprising sort of deficit-cutting fever has broken out on Capitol Hill, fueled in part by a fear that at some point the bond markets and foreign lenders will call in their loans, setting off a disastrous financial crisis. Right now, there’s a game of chicken going on over who will offer their proposals first, but this should be resolvable.

With due respect to Drew, who does fine work, I’m not sure what to make of this.

Note, for example, that the report doesn’t say that there is a “grand bargain”; it says that the relevant players will try to reach a “grand bargain.” There’s obviously a big difference — one can choose to compete in a marathon, but crossing the finish line is something else altogether. For that matter, even if the White House and GOP leaders worked out some massive compromise package, there’s no reason to think House Republicans, who have fairly specific demands and expectations, would go along.

What’s more, Drew’s assumptions about the motivations of the Republicans’ Tea Party crowd appear to be off a bit. As Kevin Drum explained, “[I]t ain’t the case that the tea party movement’s ‘primary goal’ is reducing the deficit. Its primary goal is to reduce taxes and its secondary goal is to lift the intolerable burden of tyranny that Barack Obama has imposed on us. (Its tertiary goal is whatever bee happens to be up Glenn Beck’s bonnet the week you ask them.)”

Also keep in mind, the fact that there have been some bipartisan talks in the Senate isn’t exactly new. Informal discussions began in December, and have been progressing slowly since.

We talked about these discussions, reportedly overseen by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), two weeks ago, most notably the fact that Chambliss agrees that tax increases will have to “be a part of the mix” in any serious deficit reduction plan — a realization that makes success in the GOP-led House all but impossible.

Taken together, the notion of a “grand bargain” is interesting, and worth keeping an eye on, but I wouldn’t count on any breakthroughs anytime soon.