A senior senator predicts lawmakers will strike a deal that staves off deep defense and domestic budget cuts, saying Democrats and Republicans can rally around several issues of agreement, like avoiding a middle-class tax hike.
In partisan and cynical Washington, most lawmakers and Congress watchers doubt the two parties can find ample common ground before Election Day in November to pass a broad deal that would void the automatic cuts and extend a slew of tax cuts. Fewer still believe that a lame-duck Congress will have enough incentives to do so after the elections.
Enter Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, Armed Services Committee chairman, who on Thursday appeared to be one of the few in Washington optimistic about some kind of deal before the automatic cuts would go into effect and the tax cuts would expire.
"Eighty or 90 percent of us would really like to avoid it," Levin told reporters at a breakfast meeting, adding the remaining 10 percent of fiscally hawkish Tea Party Republicans "don't care."
"There are some pieces that we agree on," says Levin. "The question of when is probably more important than the question of whether."
For instance, Levin says the prospect of allowing middle-class tax cuts to expire "is not something 90 percent of us want...coming out of a recession."
At issue are $500 billion in separate budget reductions to defense and domestic entitlement budgets that would hit January 1 unless Congress passes a broad debt-reduction package that would reduce the federal debt by $1.2 trillion. Lawmakers at the same time are searching for a way to find enough votes to pass some measure extending the middle-class cuts.
"If we could just take the pieces where we could reach agreement, and show agreement on those," Levin says, "it would give some confidence to the public and the economy and the business community that we're not going to let this draconian mess happen."
The longtime senator's plan is to push for "something like every president has used since I've been around here," meaning one that achieves the mandatory $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction through nearly equal amounts of federal cuts and revenue increases.
The latter represents a major sticking point with congressional Republicans, who oppose any tax hikes.
"We don't need to be raising taxes for defense or for any other reason," says GOP Rep. John Campbell of California, a House Budget Committee member. "What we need is to reform the tax system. We Republicans know that we all have to get at federal spending."
Levin urged GOP lawmakers to follow the lead of South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a military advocate who recently broke with his party's orthodoxy by saying he supports raising new federal revenues to avoid crippling the military with new budget reductions.
The Michigan Democrat says the two parties should set aside issues that they are not "going to solve before the election," such as whether to raise taxes on the highest-earning Americans as part of a deal to avoid the automatic cuts.
Though he supports setting that issue aside, Levin took a swipe at GOP members: "What we Democrats are basically saying to Republicans is: 'What you're saying is, you're willing to protect the wealthiest among us...instead of protecting important national priorities.'"
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.