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Compromise after falling off cliff

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:11AM

By all accounts, it’s too late to stop the so-called sequester cuts in federal spending from going into effect Friday. This latest fiscal crisis — if it is indeed that — demonstrates how bitterly polarized the politics in Washington are, and there’s no end in sight. What’s needed is an honest broker who could point the way forward through a compromise approach, if that is still possible or even desired by either side.

Little common ground exists on anything about the cuts. They add up to $1.2 trillion over a decade but come to $85 billion this year, or is it $44 billion? Depends on how you calculate it. President Obama claims they will be catastrophic, crippling defense, meaning furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal employees, curtailing nutrition and education aid to the poor, and potentially sending the economy back into recession. Republicans wonder how cuts of less than 3 percent of total federal spending have such dire consequences and accuse the administration of scare tactics and manipulating the spending reductions for maximum pain.

The only possible near-term relief is a movement in the GOP-led House to give administrators more flexibility in divvying up what are across-the-board cuts. The White House opposes that, mainly because it would take the sting out of much of the spending restraint. Obama offers up what he calls a “compromise” — another tax increase. Republicans argue he got a $600 billion tax increase in the late December deal to avoid the fiscal cliff and see his proposal as a ploy to avoid fundamental tax reform.

More political battles seem likely. Coming up in late March is the need for a continuing resolution to keep the government working in the absence of a budget from Obama. Later in the spring, the national debt ceiling limit will have to be addressed again.

The debate over the sequester has degenerated into a lot of heated finger-pointing over who’s at fault. A public weary of these continual budget battles may rightfully conclude there’s plenty of blame to go around. Once the politicians realize that, maybe they can get serious about looking for an honest broker to help them out of the mess.

And that agent is at hand in the form of Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, and Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator, who in 2011 produced a deficit reduction/tax reform plan. It enjoyed the support of very liberal Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and very conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Unfortunately, Obama, who created the Bowles-Simpson commission, never endorsed its work.

Now they’re back with a $2.4 trillion deficit reduction proposal. It has appeal to both sides. It offers Obama his “balanced approach” — a mix of new revenue and spending cuts. It satisfies GOP aspirations for reforming the tax code by ending loopholes while lowering rates, and it suggests modest entitlement reforms. It provides Obama with an end to recurring debt ceiling fights by indexing the debt limit. No doubt many details need to be filled in, but Bowles and Simpson advance hope of both ending Washington’s political stalemate and getting the nation’s finances under control.

Obama won his let’s-tax-the-rich fight with the fiscal cliff deal. Republicans now have won the let’s-cut-spending battle with the sequester. With both sides having victories under their belts, maybe they could listen to the sensible compromise ideas of Bowles and Simpson that could give them both — and the rest of us — a big win.

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