Baucus Sees Another Debt Ceiling Compromise

The retiring Montana senator undercuts the White House position.

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(J. Scott Applewhite/AP, File)
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP, File)

The official line out of the White House is that when the next big debt ceiling showdown takes place the administration wants a clean, no strings attached increase and that it won't negotiate. A key Senate Democrat Friday morning undercut the no-negotiations stance, signaling that as a practical matter it's a pipe dream.

"The president wants a clean debt limit increase," Baucus told reporters at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "I frankly think that's good policy. … But I'm also enough of a realist to know that this is a big country – you've got 535 members of congress, it's a democracy, different members of the House and Senate have different ideas on that subject. We are the Congress after all."

In other words: Yeah, when the GOP turns raising the debt ceiling into (another) political/economic hostage crisis, you're going to have to negotiate. Baucus has a reputation for sometimes being more frank about political realities than his Democratic colleagues might like (though in fairness, some of his remarks – including the idea that he thinks Obamacare is a "train wreck" – have been taken out of context).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Baucus wasn't speaking without some level of self-interest. He also said that, like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., with whom he was appearing, he sees the debt ceiling negotiation as a helpful lever to ratchet up pressure to overhaul the tax code. Tax reform happens to be the retiring Montana senator's top legislative priority.

The good news for progressives, such as it is, is that Baucus thinks the path out of this includes new revenues from tax reform. He has met, he said, with every one of his senate colleagues to get their views. "So during these meetings, I find that this senator on the other side of the aisle, he can see a path toward more revenue," Baucus said. "And I've found that a couple, three times here. And I believe there's going to have to be a compromise on that question." As a result, he said, "when we get closer to D-day, whenever it is, September, October, we're going to be in a pretty good position to know what works and doesn't work."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

It may be that he is ascribing too much rationality and willingness to compromise to a Republican Party that has been in large part taken over by ideological extremists. It's easy, after all, for a GOP senator to privately hint at a willingness to compromise on new revenues – it's something else entirely to do it publicly or, more importantly, for a Republican House member to do anything like that. As Norm Ornstein points out today, a willingness to stand up to the party's radicals is in very short supply in the House these days.

Baucus is right about one thing in any case: The debt ceiling showdown won't take place until after the fall. Camp said that thanks to increased tax revenue (from the tax hikes which, remember, he and the Republicans all opposed), we likely won't hit the debt ceiling until October. "Given that fact that it's later, it's clearly now a post-August recess issue," he said.

Cue the Halloween-themed debt ceiling columns and blog posts.

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