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Budget Compromise?

12:00 AM, Mar 16, 2013 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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For one thing, the president is no longer as able to call the tune as he has been in the past. His overwhelming popularity relative to the Republican House of Representatives has eroded, making  another win such as he chalked up during the fiscal cliff battle, which culminated in tax increases, no sure thing. He dissipated a good part of that popular edge when he threatened that sequester-mandated across-the-board cuts in some spending would end meat inspections, create security queues at airports, and force massive layoffs of teachers, among other tragedies. Yawn, at least so far. Either out of pique or a macho attempt to show just who is boss in this town, the president closed the White House to student tours, sending disappointed kids home to far-off cities without a visit to what they had been told is “their house.” Cost saving: $18,000 per week, according to ABC, trivial compared with the $1 million taxpayers spent a few weeks earlier to fly the president to Florida for a round of golf with Tiger Woods. Such petty displays shaved the president’s edge over Republicans as an economic manager from 18 points to a mere four, forcing him to deal with rather than excoriate and ignore his opponents. Greater equality of bargaining power between the White House and the House just might enhance the prospects of some sort of fiscal deal.

Then there is the question of defense spending. Paul Ryan has retreated from his 2012 campaign insistence on major increases and is accepting caps, the sequester has the Pentagon working to propose sensible targeted cuts to replace mindless across-the-board slashing, and defense spending is one area in which the president welcomes cuts, not so much to save money as to free up funds for his welfare state and to reduce the nation’s ability to engage in what he considers senseless foreign adventures. With all parties lined up in favor of cuts, there is more room for compromise than in the past.

Entitlements are tougher. The test here will be whether the president can deliver his left for the changes in cost-of-living escalators and age eligibility that he has hinted he favors. He just might win enough members over to some such compromise that also includes eliminating growth-inhibiting and unfair tax loopholes by providing political cover and support for them in the 2014 congressional elections. Dividing the revenues gained between general tax cuts and more spending would require still another compromise, this one sufficiently elusive to require the wordsmiths to extend their art to previously unattained levels of sophistication to fudge any description of the deal.

All possible. Some sort of deal looks a tiny bit more attainable today than a few weeks ago. But sanity will prevail only in the unlikely event that the Obama-Pelosi left and what the Wall Street Journal calls the “fiery antitax lawmakers” on the right who are threatened with primary challenges should they concede one cent in new revenue, revisit their undoubtedly dog-eared copies of Max Weber’s famous essay to remind themselves that politics is the art of compromise.

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