Skepticism over debt-ceiling optimism

Participants in the bipartisan debt-reduction talks are clearly buckling down. With an exceedingly tight schedule in place, negotiators met yesterday, and have additional meetings scheduled for every day this week. The House will be in recess next week, but several leaders have agreed to stick around for additional talks, with the hopes of wrapping up a deal before the 4th of July.

And if you listen to the various players, or sources close to them, you hear plenty of optimism. Indeed, the successful completion of these negotiations appears to be a foregone conclusion — it’s just a matter of hammering out the terms.

I can’t help but wonder, though, where all this optimism is coming from, and whether it makes any sense at all.

Yesterday, for example, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee sounded an awful lot like a conservative Republican, saying he’d oppose a deal if it cuts “only” $2 trillion.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said the goal of slicing more than $2 trillion from the federal budget by 2021 falls far short of the savings needed to stabilize borrowing, reenergize the economy and avert the threat of a debt crisis.

“A $2 trillion package sounds big, but I think most serious observers would tell you that it takes a package of at least $4 trillion to fundamentally change the trajectory we’re on,” Conrad told reporters. “In the context of our debt, which is nearly $15 trillion and is headed for $25 trillion, $2 trillion over 10 years does not do the job.” […]

Conrad said he would agree to raise the debt limit for no longer than six months without a more serious effort to reduce future borrowing.

If this is what a leading Democrat is saying, imagine what Republicans are saying.

Indeed, we don’t have to imagine. Some Republicans are demanding that Social Security cuts be included in the talks. Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the chief Senate Republican negotiator in the talks, reiterated his belief this week that policymakers must tackle the debt, but he doesn’t want any additional revenue coming in at all. Other Republicans are making clear they won’t go along with any deal that cuts defense spending.

Tell me again why we’re supposed to be optimistic?

Also keep in mind, if the talks fail to produce a deal that can pass, Republicans haven’t left themselves a back door. This remains a hostage situation — give the GOP the cuts it wants or they’ll block a debt-ceiling increase and create a recession on purpose. They’re no longer in a position in which they can say, “Well, we gave it a shot but the negotiations broke down. Let’s just go ahead and do the right thing now.”

It’s too late for that.

And just for the record, in case this point gets lost in the coverage and scuttlebutt, the fact that these talks are even occurring is ridiculous. With a weak economy and high unemployment, the fact that Washington’s most powerful officials are ignoring what matters and focused exclusively on taking money out of the economy — tackling a crisis that doesn’t exist while ignoring a crisis that does exist — borders on insane.