The news Saturday night that Republicans won't support a $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan was a devastating blow to the many who had begun to hope that a big bipartisan solution was possible.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement saying that the $4 trillion deal that he and President Obama had favored was off the table: "I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure, based on the cuts identified in the Biden-led negotiations," Boehner said.
While the Biden proposal is half the deal Boehner, Obama and others had hoped for, it is still something more than anyone could have expected even a few months ago. And that perspective is worth considering as both Republicans and Democrats threaten to walk away from any agreement that would lead to raising the debt ceiling.
Take, for example, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. She has a television ad running in Iowa in which she promises she won't vote to raise the debt ceiling — before even seeing the terms of the deal.
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Though Bachmann is the most outspoken among Republicans, she is not alone. Several GOP lawmakers have signed on to a "Cut, Cap and Balance" plan pledging not to vote for any debt-ceiling increase without serious spending cuts, spending caps and a balanced-budget amendment passed by both the House and Senate.
Alas, this will never happen. A constitutional amendment has to pass both chambers by a two-thirds vote (290 in the House, 67 in the Senate). The pledge is, therefore, an impossible standard.
Bachmann and others are missing the big picture. They may be stirring the hearts of tea partiers, but are they being responsible?
What they're missing (or ignoring) is the enormous opportunity for conservatives that has taken shape since the beginning of the year. Just a few months ago, President Obama was asking for a "clean" debt-limit increase — an unconditional hike without spending cuts and no reforms.
Republicans responded by making clear that there would be no increase to the $14.3 trillion debt limit unless it came with fundamental reforms, including entitlements, with spending cuts larger than the debt-limit hike, with enforceable limits on future spending and with no tax increases.
Fast-forward through a few months of intransigence — and a few friendly rounds of golf — and the conversation has become something much different. The president's proposal for a deal that would save $4 trillion over the next 10 years through cuts to all major spending areas, including entitlements and the Pentagon, is otherwise known as a "sea change."
Of course, a quarter of that $4 trillion in savings would come from $1 trillion in new tax revenues, so the deal is far from perfect at this stage. Even so, in any other season Republicans would be staging parades.
Few honest brokers think that we can prevent a financial catastrophe without both cuts and revenue increases, but there are surely ways to get there from here without necessarily punishing the weak or the strong. Where there are wills, there are ways.
Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling is fraught with risks, not the least of which is creating greater uncertainty in financial markets in an already fragile recovery.
Republicans have made enormous advances toward government reforms that were viewed as unachievable a year ago. Voting "no" may have become the aphrodisiac of small-government conservatives, but it is not necessarily an act of bravery or wisdom.
Sometimes it's just stubborn.