How the 2014 elections tip prospects for a 'grand bargain' on US deficits
Whoever wins the White House – President Obama or Mitt Romney – will need help from the other side of the aisle in the Senate to reach a deal on meaningful debt- and deficit-reduction. But key senators up for reelection in 2014 face wrenching tradeoffs.
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The red-state Democrats include Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Democratic senators in purple states are Mark Udall of Colorado, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and perhaps even Al Franken of Minnesota.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there's Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, also up for reelection in 2014, who long ago cast his lot with the grand bargain crowd as a champion of bipartisan deficit-reduction and as a leader of the Gang of Eight.
So what will those Democratic senators do when presented with a deficit-reduction plan that could put their political careers in peril?
Some will balk at Obama’s grand bargain dreams, predicts Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who has persuaded most Republicans in Congress to sign his group's pledge never to raise taxes. That means they will punt on any tax increases or deep entitlement reforms until after 2014, when Democrats will have set their sights on a target-heavy list of Republican senators up for reelection in 2016. And that means no grand bargain.
“It’s the Democrats in the Senate who are going to spend the next two years trying to convince you that they’re moderate and reasonable and not the problem, because if they are [seen as] the problem,” Mr. Norquist says, “at the end of 2014 the Republicans will have 60 votes” in the Senate.
That need not be the case, says Stan Collender, a former Democratic budget aide now at Qorvis Communications. Democrats, if they can summon a little Washington moxie, could hang in for a grand budget deal. They could benefit from what Mr. Collender calls the “look, Ma, no hands!” theory of budgeting: Let Congress’s terrible policymaking be your political friend.
By letting the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled at year’s end and then reinstating only the cuts for households with incomes of less than $250,000, Democrats could claim to have voted for a tax cut and dare Republicans to vote against them. Republican senators held firm on a similar vote in the Senate earlier in 2012, but Collender says Republicans may not be so steely when an actual tax increase is on the line.
That strategy is no slam dunk for Democrats. But it may be the political quirk that makes the policy negotiations work.
And if it doesn’t? Well, there are many ways to game out a grand bargain, and Washington has a way of turning up surprises. Just look at this election year.
Republicans “went into this  cycle and everybody was thinking, ‘oh my goodness, this is going to be the best cycle of all time,’ ” said one veteran Republican operative who was granted anonymity to candidly address his party’s chances at the polls this year. “And now we’re hoping to gain one to two [Senate] seats.”