Mark Warner

IN SEPTEMBER of 2011, a fortyish budget connoisseur named Maya MacGuineas was feeling demoralized. She couldn’t believe that Congress and the president had nearly let the country default on its debt rather than reach a major deficit-cutting deal the previous summer. So she did what she had become unofficially famous for in the wonk circles of Washington: She threw a glamorous dinner party. MacGuineas’s friend, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, agreed to open his Alexandria estate to a coterie of bold-faced names.

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Okay, so the bipartisan commission led by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson failed to come up with a mutually acceptable deficit reduction plan. This lead to the creation of the Gang of Six to give it another try, which also failed, because House Republicans won't accept any increase in revenue. This led to a deal to create yet another bipartisan commission -- the supercommission! -- which must cut the deficit or else trigger automatic cuts. But the supercommission is expected to deadlock as well for the same reason. It's pretty obvious what the situation calls for, isn't it?

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Despite months of media hype, I've expressed long-standing, deep skepticism that the Senate "Gang of Six" would ever succeed in getting a deficit agreement passed into law. The final stages of the group are just plain sad: In a last-ditch effort to make their deficit-cutting ideas relevant to the debt ceiling debate, the remnants of the Gang of Six will give a presentation on their plan to a bipartisan group of about 50 senators on Tuesday morning, according to several congressional sources. Sens.

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Gang Politics

Three recent items—two surveys and a news article—illuminate the current state of our country’s fiscal debate.

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The Saxby Swing

When asked about Paul Ryan’s deficit plan, one senator straightforwardly disapproved: “What he seeks to do is balance the budget over about a ten-year period simply by reducing spending. And you can’t do that.” When asked if some people were going to pay more in taxes, the senator added, “You bet.” Such a response was not unique, but the source of the opinion was surprising: conservative Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

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The struggle over fiscal policy is likely to preoccupy official Washington for most of the 112th Congress. Although this fight is necessary and important, it should not divert our attention from fairly disturbing developments in the economy, where some key indicators are flashing warning signs. Consider the following. Consumer prices rose 0.5 percent in February, and so-called “core” inflation (excluding food and energy) was up 0.2 percent. Although official statistics treat food and energy as non-core, ordinary Americans regard them as central.

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Matt Miller writes: The "truth-teller" du jour (who unveiled a tough New Jersey budget Tuesday that sensibly asks public workers to pick up more of their health and pension costs) did not have the guts to speak this particular truth. Christie merely said that Social Security's retirement age would have to be raised and Medicare would need to be tweaked lest it bankrupt us - things that less sexy pols, such as Democrats Dick Durbin and Mark Warner, have noted without anyone fainting in admiration. I agree with Miller's broader point.

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It's starting to look more plausible that President Obama will try to cut a budget deal with Republicans. Bob Kuttner thinks Obama plans to spring a proposal in the State of the Union address: The tax deal negotiated by President Barack Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is just the first part of a multistage drama that is likely to further divide and weaken Democrats. The second part, now being teed up by the White House and key Senate Democrats, is a scheme for the president to embrace much of the Bowles-Simpson plan — including cuts in Social Security.

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There's a tendency among liberal Democrats to believe that the Republican Party is tougher and meaner and more effective. I think it's true that the GOP is more ideologically cohesive and less bound by social norms (the filibuster should be rare, impeachment is a response to extremely serious crimes, etc.) that might constrain their power. On the other hand, ideological intransigence very frequently backfires on Republicans.

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Attention, elected officials and candidates for office from the states of Michigan and Ohio: Do you want a free, slam-dunk issue?

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