Jonathan Chait

Is Mitch McConnell Ready To Deal?

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Jay Newton-Small interviews Mitch McConnell, who invokes the grand bargain on the deficit but maintains his no-new-taxes stance:

TIME: Deficit reduction in the past has always required both sides to make sacrifices and then jump together. What are you willing to give up?

McConnell: It is true that divided government is the only government that can do transformational, difficult things… One thing I do tell my members is: whatever we do with this President is not going to be an issue in the next election. Because when you do it with divided government, no one can take advantage of whatever the difficult part of it was. You saw that on display with [Ronald] Reagan and Tip O’Neill on tax reform in ‘83, Bill Clinton and the Republicans on welfare reform in ‘96. And, you know, balancing the budget in the late 90’s was not easy; that was done by Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. So, I view this discussion surrounding the debt ceiling as actually an opportunity, an opportunity to do something important for the American people and to actually get a result. And those discussions are under way and I’m hoping that they can lead to something that I can recommend to my members and that at least most of them will conclude that it is an important accomplishment for the country… Most of my members believe that the debt crisis is actually here and this is the opportunity to deal with it. So I hope it’ll be a big moment for the country, but I can’t tell you for sure yet, that that’s the way it’s going to turn out.

But by drawing the line in the sand now, saying you won’t raise taxes under any circumstances, where is the sacrifice?

Well, the question is: What is good for the country to do? We’re in this dilemma not because we taxed too little but because we spent too much. I read the other day that 51% of Americans don’t even pay income tax. I mean we need to do some kind of comprehensive tax reform which we’re not going to do in connection with the deficit, that’s a much more complicated process that will have to go on a while. But we don’t have this debt problem because of inadequate revenue. Revenue has been relatively constant.

So, what sacrifice are you willing to make?

Well, I’m not prepared to negotiate the deal with you. I’m happy to be sitting here talking to you, but these are the kinds of things that are going on in the Biden-Kyl-Cantor meetings that will lead, I hope, to a comprehensive proposal. I’ll be delighted to explain to you why I decided to support it or oppose it depending on where we end up.

McConnell's justifications are, of course, pure blather. He repeats the wildly misleading talking point about 51% of Americans paying no income tax -- which, even if accurate, would hardly bolster his anti-tax position. (So raise their taxes, right?) He insists "revenue has been relatively constant." Even if true, that wouldn't mean we can't increase it more. (If my income had stayed the same while my expenses rose, getting a higher-paying job would still be an option to solve my financial problems, right?) And, anyway, it's obviously not true:

That light blue line that has collapsed since 2000 is revenue. It's projected to rise because CBO assumes the Bush tax cuts will expire after 2012, a policy both parties oppose.

And yet, despite the blather McConnell spouts, he does signal a real willingness to cut a deal here. Indeed, it's the complete vacuousness of the blather that signals a lack of conviction, quite unlike Paul Ryan's theological invocations of supply-side dogma. Here's McConnell showing some leg:

Is Barack Obama somebody that you can do business with?

Yeah. I just don’t know him as well as I know Biden. And the President, I think, also smartly picked the Vice President to work on some of these things where interaction with members of Congress is a good thing to have, and Joe’s been doing that a long time, so he’s kind of a familiar figure.

Without tax increases or tax reform, how much can you really do in this window? Won’t most of the deficit reduction plan be left until 2013?

There’s a lot you can do. I think we’d all like to tackle tax reform. But a lot of the spade work, if you will, has already been done. The deficit reduction commission studied all of these issue thoroughly. There are options laying right there on the table. We don’t need any more hearings, we don’t need any more mark ups. The question is: Which combination of these things are we going to agree to do on a bipartisan basis, and the second issue is: How do you get it passed? Well, the way you get it passed is in connection with the debt ceiling vote. Some thing the President has asked us to do, something he feels he has to have something only we can ultimately give him enough votes to pass, so this is the moment of maximum leverage.

How this deal gets through the House, I couldn't tell you. And the next time McConnell does something in te national interest ahead of his partisan interest will be the first. But maybe the New York special election has frightened enough Republicans into thinking they need to make a deal that allows them to move past the Ryan budget, and to present it as a solution to a now-solved problem, or else they risk a real bloodbath in 2012. And maybe, when McConnell invokes "the moment of maximum leverage," he reveals his belief that defeating Obama in 2012 is no longer as easy as he once thought it would be, and he's better off cutting a deal now. Or maybe not.

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