Elmer Smith: Deficit-reduction will be a booby-hatched plan

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 08, 2011

YOU REALLY can't appreciate those deficit-reduction talks on Capitol Hill until you've seen the mating dance of the blue-footed booby.

The potential partners approach cautiously and alternately lift and lower their bright-blue, webbed feet, the way sumo wrestlers stomp before clinching.

In a moment of candor, a booby might concede that all that foot-stomping and those dazzling displays of plumage add little to the coupling that follows. But those who have seen it say that the courtship ritual is far more memorable than the consummation.

That's what our leaders in Washington are hoping. They are on the brink of a deal that neither side will be happy with. So, Democrats and Republicans want their constituents to know that they stomped their feet and flapped their wings for as long as they could.

They want us to remember the fight they put up, rather than the deal they made. That way, each side can blame the other for the egg it lays. Nobody is going to want to claim this cross-bred hatchling.

Republican congressional leaders who have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they will never go for a tax hike are likely to sign off on a plan that includes closing tax loopholes, reducing tax breaks for favored corporations and, possibly, even allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire in 18 months.

President Obama, in a move that puts him at odds with 72 percent of the Democratic respondents in a recent Pew Foundation poll, has signaled his willingness to consider cuts in Medicare and Social Security spending in return for letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire and eliminating some oil-industry subsidies.

This puts the president perilously close to the third rail of national politics. Most Democrats would sooner take a sharp stick in the eye than to threaten the sacred cow worshipped by one of their most loyal constituencies, senior citizens. These folks go to the polls to vote for those who vote for them and against those they perceive as voting against them.

It's a course that is fraught with danger for both sides. About 60 percent of the respondents to the Pew poll feel that maintaining the status quo in Social Security and Medicare spending is more important than reducing the deficit. Only 32 percent favored deficit reduction over retaining those entitlements.

Republicans were split along income lines. About 63 percent of likely Republican voters with annual incomes of at least $72,000 favor deficit reductions, while 62 percent of Republicans with incomes of $30,000 or less are for maintaining entitlement programs intact.

But there were no ideological differences by income level among Democrats. They overwhelmingly favored maintaining entitlement spending across the board. So, this is a policy prescription that could spell doom for a Democratic congressional candidate or a Democratic president seeking re-election.

But the president says that he is willing to risk it if it leads to a long-term debt-reduction scheme that he believes could shave $4 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years. By contrast, only $2 trillion could be realized from a spending-cut plan that doesn't touch the entitlements.

When the president convened yesterday's meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, he was hoping to not only break the impasse that has stalled deficit-reduction talks but also to fashion a compromise that could put the issue to rest for the next decade.

As recently as Wednesday, neither side held out much hope that a far-reaching, deficit-rediction plan could even be sketched out in the White House talks.

But hours after the meeting started, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters yesterday that there is a "50-50 chance" that a debt-reduction deal could be finalized "within the next few days."

Hard to believe that, after all that flapping and fluttering and foot-stomping, Capitol Hill's answer to the blue-footed booby is about to hatch a plan.

Send email to smithel@ phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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