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Political chatter shows no hint of bipartisan intent

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 4:46 PM EDT, Sun September 25, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrats and Republicans split on short- and long-term issues
  • The deficit debate remains focused on taxes and entitlement programs
  • Sen. Graham wants to protect the military from further spending cuts

Washington (CNN) -- If the political chatter out of Washington on Sunday is any indication, the prospects for Congress reaching a major deficit reduction deal this year appear grim.

One senator is already planning legislation to soften the blow of more than $1 trillion in mandatory spending cuts if Congress fails to pass a deficit plan by December 23.

Democrats and Republicans continue feuding over the same issues -- taxes and entitlement programs -- that have dominated the deficit discussion for more than a year.

With another budget impasse looming -- this time over a short-term measure to fund the government for the first seven weeks of the new fiscal year that starts Saturday -- the political stalemate continues unabated to the detriment of the struggling economy and national psyche.

For the third time in six months, a partial government shutdown is possible if the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate fail to agree on the short-term spending plan by Friday -- the end of the current fiscal year.

Asked on CNN's "State of the Union" at what point the endless political wrangling becomes embarrassing, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, responded: "It is embarrassing."

"Can we once again inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near-government shutdown?" Warner wondered. "I sure as heck hope not."

Both Warner and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the debate last week should have focused on reaching a comprehensive deficit reduction bill that will send the message that Congress can act decisively to deal with the nation's lingering economic struggles.

"That would have been a good use of the week instead of this chest-pounding and game-playing that's been going on" over the short-term funding measure, Alexander told CNN.

Another conservative Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told "Fox News Sunday" that he's already thinking about what to do if Congress fails to pass a broad deficit deal by Christmas, as called for in last month's debt-ceiling agreement.

A special joint committee created under the agreement has until November 23 to forge a deficit deal, and Congress has to pass it by December 23. Otherwise, a "trigger" mechanism requires $1 trillion-plus spending cuts throughout the government, on top of $900 billion already cut under the debt-ceiling legislation.

The trigger was intended to motivate Congress to work out a deficit deal, but with little indication of progress in that direction, Graham said out loud Sunday what many have expected to happen in the event no agreement gets reached.

"I will introduce legislation that will protect the Defense Department from devastating cuts," Graham said. "If (the joint committee) fails, let's don't destroy the Defense Department."

So far, the new deficit panel has held three public sessions as well as some private talks.

Republicans are focused on reducing the size of government through spending cuts and entitlement reforms that lower costs, while Democrats advocate what they call a balanced approach that increases tax revenue by raising rates on the wealthy while also reducing spending and costs.

Alexander and Warner agreed on CNN that the joint committee needs to come up with a package totaling $4 trillion or so in deficit reduction steps to address the main issues and satisfy financial markets.

"We've got to get back to the bigger issue, which is how do we send confidence back to the American public and to the markets," Warner said. "The only way we're going to get that done is if we actually, Democrats and Republicans, start being Americans before they put on their partisan hats."

Then he and Alexander both showed their partisan hats were securely in place, with each blaming the other's party for the congressional dispute over disaster relief that is holding up the short-term spending measure.

The measure includes additional money to fill the almost depleted emergency aid coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Army Corps of Engineers following Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, wildfires and tornadoes so far this year.

House Republicans have passed a bill that cuts spending elsewhere to offset some of the increased disaster relief aid. Democrats oppose offsets for emergency aid, saying disaster relief for Americans in need should be unencumbered. The Democratic-led Senate rejected the House measure on Friday.

Alexander accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, of manufacturing a crisis over the disaster relief funding issue.

"Everybody knows we're going to pay for every single penny of disaster aid that the president declares and that FEMA certifies," Alexander said. "And the House sent over a bill that does that and the Senate should have approved it."

On Fox, Graham called the House bill "reasonable" and said: "We can't borrow money every time something goes wrong in America."

Warner, however, said House Republicans catered to demands of the conservative tea party movement by demanding that the measure included spending offsets for emergency disaster relief.

"I do believe it is mostly centered in the House in terms of some of these tea party Republicans who say on every issue we're going to make this a make-or-break," Warner told CNN.

White House senior adviser David Plouffe agreed, telling "Fox News Sunday" that about 30 tea party conservatives in the House were dictating to the House Republican leaders.

"The Republican leadership is putting their demands ahead of the needs of 300 million Americans," Plouffe said of the tea party members. "The entire approach is how do we keep those tea party members happy."

The end result is a continuing signal to U.S. and global markets of an inability by Congress to work together to address the nation's problems, said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

"I think the political vitriol, the spectacle that occurred here in Washington this spring and summer, did tremendous damage," Zandi said of the debt-ceiling talks that threatened a possible U.S. default.

To Zandi, the U.S. economy was showing potential at the beginning of the year by creating "a couple hundred thousand jobs per month."

"And then we went through this mess, and it just eviscerated confidence," he said. "And people were already nervous because of what we've all been through" with the recession and high unemployment.

The key to getting strong growth going again "is policymakers need to get it together," Zandi said, adding: "They need to act."

On the same program, though, the respective leaders of the Republican and Democratic national committees argued over talking points and cut each other off, showing no bipartisan spirit whatsoever.

Republicans are "all embracing and bear-hugging the tea party, moving to the right," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the DNC chairwoman. "They can't move to the right far enough. ... The extremists in the tea party control your party."

Her Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, fired back that President Barack Obama has failed in his handling of the economy, with Democrats only able to argue that he inherited a bad situation.

"It sounds like the new slogan is no longer hope and change," Priebus said. "It's 'Hey, it could have been worse.' "

CNN's Rebecca Stewart contributed to this report.

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