Time for Democrats and Republicans to Deliver

By Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune - November 11, 2012

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made their opening statements Friday in negotiations to resolve the nation's budget impasse over federal spending and debt. Both struck the right tone — in what they said, and what they didn't.

Coming off a decisive victory Tuesday, the Democratic president could have boasted that elections have consequences. He could have insisted on the tax-the-high-earners plan that he talked about day after day on the campaign trail.

With a solid majority behind him in the House, the Republican speaker could have declared that raising tax revenues would be out of the question. He could have taken a hard line and waved over his head the House budget plan championed by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

It bodes well for the talks ahead that both men avoided such brinkmanship. The president pronounced himself open to compromise and new ideas. He said he was not "wedded" to his own plan. The speaker also said he would welcome new ideas. At a news conference, Boehner pointedly refused to box himself into any one formula for avoiding the "fiscal cliff."

The cliff has become the talk of the nation, and we're pleased that it has.

The budget deficit and national debt must be addressed sooner, not later. The so-called cliff is a consequence of a budget deal put in place in 2011. After lawmakers failed to solve their fundamental problems, they scheduled automatic tax increases and government spending cuts that kick in Jan. 1 unless Congress and the president act to avert them.

No one on Capitol Hill wants to go over the cliff, since doing so would trigger a recession, undermine job creation and stir anger among voters. There should be no post-election honeymoon, or even a long weekend, until Washington finds a path around the cliff. The pressure's on, with financial markets and credit rating agencies also wanting action.

The priorities of both sides: President Obama wants wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes. House Republicans want lower overall tax rates.

Those priorities are not mutually exclusive. Under Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a bipartisan deficit commission in 2010 came up with a bold plan that would have accomplished both goals, and drastically reduced the deficit. The Simpson-Bowles plan isn't perfect; notably, it doesn't reform federal entitlement programs racing toward insolvency. But the nation needs a deal like — or, preferably, more ambitious than — Simpson-Bowles. A big deal.

The challenge now is summoning the courage to make it happen:

Raising revenues without raising tax rates almost certainly would involve eliminating, reducing or capping cherished deductions. Republicans need courage to withstand important constituencies that will rally around tax breaks for charitable contributions, mortgage interest and employer-provided health and pension benefits. The reduced tax rate on capital gains is likely to be targeted, as well as tax advantages for those who inherit fortunes.

Democrats need courage to enact the necessary cuts in entitlements. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security make up the biggest part of our nation's looming fiscal imbalance. Their growth rates can't continue. Something's got to give for the nation to meet its bills and pay down its $16 trillion-and-rising debt, as the Simpson-Bowles commission made clear.

The negotiations start in earnest next week, in face-to-face meetings at the White House. It will be refreshing to see this high-stakes dialogue getting the attention it deserves. Those meetings raise expectations. Simply by getting the parties together in a room, the pressure increases for an agreement. About time.

On Friday, Obama expressed the views of most Americans. They're weary of politicians who view compromise as a dirty word. They want cooperation, consensus and common sense. Most of all, whether they voted for his re-election or not, they voted for action. Time for Democrats and Republicans to deliver.


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