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Time for a truce on debt-ceiling talks

By David Gergen, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen says tempers and intransigence are stalling debt talks and a cease-fire is in order
  • He says Democrats may have to agree to spending cuts without tax increases
  • He says GOP may have to lift debt limit through 2012, give up matching spending cut demands
  • Gergen: Neither side will be pleased, but a truce beats risking a default on our debt

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- With tempers near a boiling point and the risk growing that the United States could default on its debt obligations, it is time for a truce in the budget talks in Washington -- essentially a cease-fire in place.

The outlines of a cease-fire are readily apparent, and indeed there are signs that behind the scenes some conversations are already taking place. Here's what a truce might look like:

• Democrats agree to accept some $1.5 trillion in spending cuts that have been on the table but give up their demands that a deal also include significant tax increases.

• Republicans agree to lift the debt limit by some $2.5 trillion, enough to carry past the 2012 elections, but give up their demands that spending cuts must match or exceed the debt-limit increase dollar for dollar.

• Both sides agree to close tax loopholes and raise fees for government services, but agree to use the resulting revenue for offsetting payroll tax decreases and other means of pumping life in the economy, thus making the proposition revenue-neutral.

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• Both sides agree that this fall, a new set of negotiators be appointed to press forward with additional ways to achieve credible, long-term deficit reductions.

A deal like this certainly won't meet the full expectations of Washington warriors, but it will be good for the country -- and arguably, a lot better for the parties than their partisans may think.

For the country, the single greatest urgency is to reach an agreement that averts a default. Yes, it would have been far better if the agreement included the $4 trillion grand bargain that President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner envisioned or even the more modest $2.5 trillion talked about just a few days ago. But the parties are too hopelessly divided for that.

Unless one or the other is willing to cave altogether -- extremely unlikely -- it makes little sense to continue talking in ways that are poisoning relationships among national leaders, deepening resistance within party ranks and starting to scare the hell out of the world. The U.S. is looking like a dysfunctional family.

For Republicans, a truce such as this will bring severe disappointments. They wanted much bigger spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling, and, as they fear, the cuts on the table will no doubt include both gimmicks and illusory savings. But cuts of $1.5 trillion would be far more than anyone would have imagined before the 2010 elections and by any measure would be historic. Moreover, the GOP will have held the line against higher taxes -- crucial to many in their base who hate raising the debt ceiling.

For Democrats, there will be great unhappiness, too. They will feel they are signing on to a plan that in the midst of hard times, further squeezes services for the poor and middle class and, unbelievably, will once again let the rich off the hook. Some of them will think that Republicans have badly outmaneuvered them. But they know deep down that some of the cuts are justified and others don't mean much. More to the point, they will have preserved Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from Republican knives -- an important asset for the 2012 elections.

For the president, the gains are potentially even higher than for his congressional colleagues. He would get a debt extension beyond the elections -- something about which he cares passionately. The country -- along with credit-rating agencies -- may gain greater confidence in his leadership. That, along with payroll tax cuts, could help the economy. And he will have burnished his credentials with independents as a fiscally responsible Democrat.

All in all, that is a good bargain -- especially, when one considers the alternative.

Can it happen? Yes. Ezra Klein reported in The Washington Post on Thursday that in some circles, there is already talk of splitting the difference between Boehner's insistence on dollar-for-dollar spending cuts, versus Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan that would require the debt ceiling be lifted three times between now and the election. While that split may appeal to Republicans, it won't sell with Obama -- he is adamant the debt ceiling must be lifted high enough that it lasts through the elections.

This is not just an election ploy by the president -- he legitimately worries that a short-term fix will risk a downgrading of the country's credit rating. A truce of the kind suggested above is much more likely to win support on both sides, but it is good news that there is already talk of splitting the Boehner and McConnell plans.

One huge cautionary note is still in order: A cease-fire in place will meet the urgent, short-term challenge -- averting a default that could be catastrophic. It will also help on the deficit front. But it won't -- repeat, won't -- solve the country's two long-term and increasingly dangerous problems: our slide into massive debt and our anemic economic growth. They are related, and both will demand attention from Washington as soon as we get past default. That's one reason why it is so important for the key players to build better personal relationships.

Peter Orszag, Obama's first budget director, made a crucial argument in a column for Bloomberg on Wednesday: Unless we get higher economic growth soon, we will find the deficit outlook even worse than we think. Low growth means low revenues for Washington, and often higher costs. By Orszag's calculation, a low growth path could add as much as $2.5 trillion to the deficits over the next 10 years -- as much or even more than we gain from the current, tortuous negotiations in Washington.

So, we dare not have false illusions. It is urgent that Washington avert a default on our debt. But once we meet our short-term crisis, we must brace ourselves for bigger ones coming at us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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