For the past few days, the focus of coverage of the budget negotiations has been on the House Republicans who torpedoed Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B proposal. The hardliners determined to fight any tax increases, including those on millionaires, have helped create a situation where the deadline may well expire before Congress and the president can agree on a deal that will avoid an across-the-board tax increase as well as devastating spending cuts. Though their argument that the country’s problem is about spending, not taxes, is right, allowing the country to go over the fiscal cliff is irresponsible and will cost the GOP dearly in terms of public support. But now that the House has failed to advance Boehner’s compromise measure, it is up to the Senate to act and that means the media needs to turn its attention from the intransigence of a minority of House Republicans to the equally unproductive behavior of the majority of Democrats in the upper house.
For all of the country’s justified concern about the inability of the Republicans to make a deal, the fact remains that the Democratic-controlled Senate is even more of an obstacle to an accord. For Majority Leader Harry Reid and his party to act to avoid the fiscal cliff, he will have to do something that he has failed to do in the last three years: pass a budget plan of any kind. The Democrats have sat back and enjoyed the brickbats thrown at the GOP for their dysfunctional behavior, but have done nothing themselves to make a deal other than to play the role of cheerleaders for the White House’s class warfare rhetoric. With only days left for action to avoid the automatic enactment of measures that could potentially devastate an already weak economy, it’s time to for Reid and his caucus to put forward a bill that could actually pass. If not, their reliance on public opinion only blaming Republicans for the impending debacle may ultimately wind up a colossal misjudgment.
Wyoming Senator John Barrasso isn’t the only Republican who thinks that the Democrats, and in particular President Obama, are quite eager for the nation to go over the fiscal cliff. As he said yesterday on Fox News Sunday, doing so would accomplish two things that Democrats have longed to do: create a massive tax increase and cut defense, all the while letting Republicans take the blame. That was the president’s strategy last year during the debt ceiling negotiations during which he hoped to duplicate President Clinton’s success in shifting the culpability for the 1995 government shutdown to Newt Gingrich and his House majority. But the collapse of Boehner’s stratagem actually puts the onus on the Senate and the Democrats in a way it has not been throughout this crisis.
With no one paying much attention to the family squabble among House Republicans, the time has finally arrived when the Senate and its Democratic leaders are bound to start getting more coverage. If Reid does not pass something this week and pass on to the House a bill that will at least give the nation a short respite from the consequences of the fiscal cliff, then it will be impossible for anyone to pretend that what will follow is only a GOP problem. If so, then perhaps we are arriving at the moment when the assumptions about the budget standoff could turn out to be unfounded.
Their grandstanding about taxing rich people has allowed Democrats to avoid any real discussion about reform of the entitlements that are sinking the country. Neither the White House nor the Senate has put forward a coherent plan or a proposal worth voting on that addresses this issue, without which any talk of a long-term solution to the problem is impossible.
Republicans may have hit bottom last week when they sandbagged Boehner and effectively undermined any chance that he could force a more favorable compromise out of Obama. But Democrats are foolish to believe that no blame will ever attach to them just because the GOP has failed. Public cynicism about Congress and the political system is, at its heart, a bipartisan consensus about the governing class, not just anger about Tea Party intransigence. Unless Reid and the Senate Democrats do something this week to put the ball back into the House’s court, they, too, will shoulder plenty of the responsibility for what follows.