07.20.11

Dr. No to the Debt Rescue

Tom Coburn is giving his fellow conservative Republicans political cover to vote for a debt compromise.

Tom Coburn, the doctor turned senator from Oklahoma, jolted the stalled debt-ceiling negotiations back to life Tuesday.

The patient isn’t walking yet, but it has a heartbeat.

Coburn seized center stage when he announced that he had returned to the disbanded “Gang of Six” debt talks after bolting from the negotiations in June. “I’m back,” he said to applause in a closed-door meeting of nearly 50 Democrats and Republicans.

Hours later, President Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House press room to call the Gang of Six's proposal “a very significant step” and broadly support the reunited group’s plan to cut federal spending by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, while raising $1.3 trillion in revenues by lowering marginal tax rates and ending some corporate and individual tax loopholes.

In reality, the deal that Coburn and the gang endorsed Tuesday most likely will never become law—the looming default deadline of Aug. 2 makes the usually interminable process of writing legislative language all but impossible. Asked if he would bring the measure up for a vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointedly reminded reporters Tuesday: “I’m the one who runs the Senate, and I understand what the rules of the Senate are.”

But passing the gang’s plan isn’t the point. The mere fact that Coburn came off the sidelines to embrace a compromise in Washington’s environment of party purity makes the chances of averting a default better than even for the first time in the lengthy negotiations.

“I think it could be a game changer,” said Doug Thornell, a political consultant and former senior aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a key Democratic negotiator. “You have Tom Coburn, who has never had his conservative bona fides questioned, embracing this. If the idea picks up some steam, there is a possibility that this could change the trajectory of the discussions and we could get it done.”

Coburn’s move not only revives momentum for the talks, it also gives fellow conservatives broad political cover to consider a plan with revenue increases, even in the face of outright opposition from most GOP leaders.

Coburn, Mike Crapo, and Saxby Chambliss “are some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus,” Sen. Lamar Alexander said Tuesday when he endorsed the gang’s plan. “So if they study something for six months and tell me it’s good for the country, that means a lot to me.”

Coburn’s role as a Senate middleman is one of the most surprising developments in the entire messy debt standoff. Not only is he one of the most conservative members of Congress, he’s earned the nickname “Dr. No” for his history of stalling, stopping, or blocking more than 500 bills—including, for a time, a bill to compensate 9/11 first responders. This, naturally, has infuriated some of his colleagues. George Will once called him “the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular.”

The mere fact that Coburn came off the sidelines to embrace a compromise makes the chances of averting a default better than even for the first time.

The good doctor abruptly bolted from the high-profile Gang of Six debt negotiations in May, complaining that Democrats would not make real changes to entitlements. “It’s just a recognition that we can’t get there,” he said at the time.

But Coburn is also one of Obama’s closest, and least likely, friends on Capitol Hill. The two hit it off at a freshman orientation dinner in 2004 after both won their seats and have remained close ever since. Coburn regularly writes personal notes to the president, and Obama once called Coburn “my brother in Christ” at a Washington prayer breakfast.

The Oklahoman also has said that middle ground has to be a part of the debt deal. On Monday, he unveiled his own plan to slash $9 trillion from the federal budget—more than double the size of the “grand bargain” that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had briefly embraced. The Coburn blueprint includes $1 trillion in defense-spending cuts and more than $1 trillion in revenues from ending tax subsidies, sacrosanct items in previous Republican budgets. “Here we have this great big problem and what do we want to do? Punt because it’s easier?” he said. “That’s not what I came here to do.”

Although Senate Republicans seemed willing to go along with Coburn on Tuesday, the final deal will have to win over GOP House members, many of whom say they came to Washington expressly to stop the runaway federal spending that Congress has approved year after year.

“It’s going to boil down to freshmen Republicans who were elected in swing districts, where the Tea Party pushed them over the line but they’ve got a moderate electorate,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to the Republican leadership in Congress. “Those members will have to figure out how to thread the needle.”

Bonjean said any deal will turn on “the fine print,” especially if taxes are included, since Republicans must recognize that many Tea Party members will balk at a compromise.

“There will always be an unhappy element for the Tea Partiers who did not think it went far enough, and that’s OK,” he said.

The first step in getting House Republicans to agree to a deal they may not want was letting them vote on a package they do. On Tuesday night, the House passed a plan on a mostly party-line vote of 234 to 190 to slash federal spending to 1966 levels and require a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in exchange for raising the current debt limit.

But Obama vowed to veto the bill, and House Democrats accused Republicans of wasting precious time with political theater.

“I will bet you cash money that it ain’t going to become the law,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, offering to wager with freshman Georgia Republican Rob Woodall on the bill’s chances of passing the Senate.

With the Aug. 2 deadline looming, a series of national polls show growing pressure from an anxious American public for Congress to do something—anything—to avoid a default.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found just 18 percent of Americans believe that the economy would be unharmed if Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling. A CBS poll showed more than 80 percent of Americans predicting a severe downturn in the economy and stock market without a debt-ceiling increase. In the same survey, 71 percent of people disapproved of how Republicans are handling the negotiations.

“If there is in instability caused by an imminent default, that could force a deal,” Bonjean said. “The volume is growing.”