John McCain Is America's Last Best Hope for Forging Fiscal Deal

With John Boehner weaker than ever and Mitch McConnell tacking right for a reelection campaign, the Arizona maverick is going to have to play Obi-Wan Kenobi.
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Reuters/The Atlantic

With Congress away for the next month, it gives us time to pause and consider the various train wrecks that lie ahead when the members return September 9—and we are talking trainwrecks of the deadly variety. Three weeks after Congress returns, the new fiscal year will start; most of government as we know it will shut down unless both chambers can agree on a continuing resolution to keep government funded until they can finish their appropriations work and/or settle their differences over spending priorities.

A few weeks after that, we will bump up against the debt ceiling, with another confrontation or set of confrontations a near certainty. Just days into the recess, we are seeing a huge ramp-up in pressure on all Republicans from the Right to use every weapon possible to destroy and defund Obamacare. Any vote that keeps funding for it, even if it is to protect the full faith and credit of the U.S., this argument goes, is a treasonous one.

More than likely, we will see Republican leaders attempt first to achieve death by a thousand cuts, proposing a very short-term continuing resolution, perhaps for a month, to work things through—with the insistence that Congress cut off funds for the health care program during that time—followed by another, and another. And we might well see the two elements, government shutdown and debt ceiling, tied together for maximum leverage—the equivalent of terrorists saying we will kill our hostages and blow up New York unless you accede to our demands. A government shutdown and a breach of the debt limit—what a great formula for economic recovery!

To review the scenario from last December, we all knew that if there were no deal among the House, Senate, and White House by midnight on December 31, we would see, among other things, taxes go up automatically on everyone (and, on January 1 or 2, President Obama would have proposed a massive tax cut from the new status quo for everyone except the rich). House Speaker John Boehner tried vainly to get some traction for negotiating a deal with the president, but he was rudely rebuffed by his caucus; he then washed his hands of the whole thing. At the eleventh hour, Vice President Joe Biden jumped in and cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that swept through the Senate and limped through the House, narrowly avoiding catastrophe.

That was then. Today Boehner is, if anything, weaker than he was last year, and nearly incapable of forging any kind of compromise with the president, much less commanding support within his own caucus. The embarrassment last week on the transportation appropriations bill, which followed the debacle on the farm bill, shows a House majority that can only steer right, and head into the ditch. That leaves the Senate. The only route to resolution of the appropriations and debt-ceiling showdowns—which may or may not include one or more shutdowns and a debt-limit breach before a deal is made—is through a broad bipartisan Senate majority joining with the president and forcing the House to vote on it, with more Democrats than Republicans supporting it. So will there be a last-minute deal in the Senate brokered by McConnell and Biden? Not a chance.

Why not McConnell? The answer is pretty obvious: McConnell is in the fight of his life, whipsawed between a tough challenge from the Right and an attractive Democratic alternative. The last thing McConnell will be willing to do for the next year is broker a deal that either funds government while preserving Obamacare or extends the debt limit without punishing preconditions. At best—and, given the pressure on him from conservative Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, it is no sure thing—McConnell will silently accede to another player or players brokering the deal and letting his Senate colleagues vote without pressure, while he votes no and plays to his right-wing activist Kentuckians.

But there is at least a chance that a deal could be forged in the Senate. To paraphrase Princess Leia, Obi-Wan McCain, you are our only hope. One of the great pleasures of my career was working with John McCain for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s on campaign-finance reform. He was terrific to spend time with, was smart, principled, gutsy, willing to compromise in order to make a bill that would pass and pass muster with the Supreme Court—everything one would hope for in a legislator. That McCain is back, and is the natural leader of the forces for pragmatic sanity in the party. Second on the list is Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has emerged as another leader on the problem-solving front, far more willing to look for compromises and common ground to deal with the big problems facing the country than to be a simple foot soldier in a partisan and ideological army.

McCain's Rat Pack includes, of course, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who deserves a profile in courage award for continuing on many fronts to be a problem solver despite his own strong primary challenge from a growing collection of extreme candidates. Add institutionalist Susan Collins of Maine, (now furious with McConnell for actively undermining her after she worked overtime to craft a bipartisan transportation bill); Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, more independent after her near-political death experience in the Senate primary in the last cycle; Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a key figure in the Gang of Six budget plan; Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who understands how reckless it would be to shut down the government or threaten the full faith and credit of the U.S. on a fools' errand; maybe Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; possibly even Roy Blunt of Missouri. Also add John Hoeven of North Dakota, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Dan Coats of Indiana. Together, they could bump the numbers in the Senate for a deal to break the impasse close to the magic 70 that would force the House to act.

Given the intense campaign by the rejectionists to make a vote that provides even a dime for Obamacare a litmus test, several of these potential deal-makers may shrink back when the time comes. It will probably take some kind of shutdown to provide the excuse, and the jolt, to pull a deal together. And we can't discount the possibility of real and extended chaos.

Obi-Wan?

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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