Five Things for Liberals to Like in the Debt Ceiling Deal

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As the broad strokes of the debt ceiling deal began to leak out over the weekend, progressive groups filled reporters’ inboxes with outraged e-mails. “Seeing a Democratic President take taxing the rich off the table and instead push a deal that will lead to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefit cuts is like entering a bizarre parallel universe — one with horrific consequences for middle-class families,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee Co-Founder Stephanie Taylor wrote. “This deal is the exact opposite of what the majority of Americans support, and all Democrats in Congress should oppose it.”

“MoveOn’s 5 million members, along with the vast majority of Americans, will not stand for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefit cuts–not now, and not six months from now,” wrote Justin Ruben, Executive Director of MoveOn.org, “Congress should reject both ‘triggers’, and a ‘Super Congress’, and pass a clean debt ceiling bill that doesn’t force the middle class and the poor to bear the brunt of this crisis.”

But as the details of the compromise emerged, it seemed there was actually a lot for liberals to like about this bill. If and when the House passes the bill on Monday, it will likely be with the help of a lot of Democrats. Here’s why some liberals are actually happy with this deal:

The 2012 budget: At one point in the negotiations, the 2012 budget was to be slashed by $36 billion. The final number of cuts: just $7 billion. And just to ensure we don’t have another bruising government shutdown fight over cuts in September, the deal deems and passes the 2012 budget. Yes, that’s right, the old Gephardt Rule or Slaughter Solution, is back. What’s deem and pass? It’s a legislative trick that essentially means that Congress will consider the budget passed without ever actually having to vote on it.

The trigger: This is counterintuitive, but the trigger is actually pretty good for Democrats. For all that MoveOn thinks that it would force benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, it actually wouldn’t trigger benefit cuts to any entitlements. The only cuts it would force would be a 2% or more haircut for Medicare providers. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, along with most Democrats, has never opposed provider cuts. Not only that, most progressives actually want the Pentagon cuts. So if the committee deadlocks and the trigger is pulled, Democrats won’t be miserable.

The commission: Again, for all the liberal carping about a “Super Congress,” the commission of 12 members — three from each party in each chamber — set up to find the second phase of $1.5 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving is actually rigged to force some revenue increases. Yes, the Bush tax cuts are off the table. But there are plenty of loopholes, subsidies and other corporate welfare programs that are on the table. And with such a strong trigger, it’s hard to imagine at least one Republican not voting to kill corporate jet subsidies over slashing $500 billion from the defense budget – even if the revenues aren’t offset. The question is: who are Republicans more afraid of, Grover Norquist or the joint chiefs? Democrats’ money is on the joint chiefs.

The immediate cuts: It may seem like a lot, but the $917 billion in the first phase of cuts were carefully negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden and his group. They include $350 billion in Pentagon cuts – a win for liberals. They don’t touch entitlement benefits, another win. And they set top line numbers for the next decade of budgets that aren’t draconian. It still cuts where liberals might prefer to spend, but most of the savings are backloaded to avoid extreme austerity in next few years of fragile economic recovery.  Just $7 billion would be cut in 2012, and only $3 billion in 2013. And of that combined $10 billion, half would come from the Pentagon. On top of that, the discretionary spending caps on budgets in future Congresses are subject to revision by those bodies.

The debt ceiling: Raising the debt ceiling through 2013 will not be contingent on the second round of cuts. There will merely be a vote of disapproval. This avoids another messy fight in January and another round of painful forced cuts.

In a world where the Tea Party didn’t exist, would this be a good bill for Democrats? Absolutely not. But considering that the trigger, commission, two-step process and discretionary budget cuts could’ve been a LOT worse – and actually were in Boehner’s version of the bill – this deal will be easier to swallow. The commission will likely mean a long-term win for Democrats: they’ll get either their revenue increases or achieve significant Pentagon cuts. It could mark a political victory as well: If Pelosi passes this bill on primarily Democratic support, they’ll look like the adults in the room who can compromise and govern, a stark contrast to the Tea Party freshmen.

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