In the Arena

Why Congress May Finally Do a Budget Deal

Congress will turn from do-nothing to no-dither

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MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama makes his way to the Rose Garden to speak on the budget on April 10,2013 at the White House in Washington.

A professor at the university of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School wants to hook me up to a computer and test how well I make predictions. I can save him the trouble. Journalists are terrific when it comes to analyzing the past, pretty good on what’s happening right now and embarrassingly dreadful about the day after tomorrow. I stopped making predictions right after I assured CNN’s Jake Tapper that George W. Bush would never win the Republican presidential nomination after he lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000.

Sometimes, though, I just can’t help myself. And this is one of those times: I think we’re going to get a bipartisan budget deal this year. You are skeptical. You should be. But I can summon a few tantalizing arguments to make the case.

Both houses of Congress passed measures that would have withheld lawmakers’ pay if they didn’t pass a budget resolution this year—an acknowledgment that their constituents are getting pretty tired of the status quo. Several members of Congress have told me that the business community is particularly sick of the enduring economic uncertainty caused by the deadlock, which is an excellent thing: business has both the cash and the lobbyists to pressure a compromise. It may not be an accident that Democrats finally joined Republicans in producing budget blueprints this year. The two plans are ridiculous, but they exist.

And they’ve created a clear path for President Obama to propose a more moderate and realistic plan that would cut entitlement spending and raise revenue. Both sides profess to be appalled by this, which is also good. Obama’s plan will be more politically palatable for reasonable Republicans if some Democrats refuse to vote for it.

The President has also changed his legislative strategy. He has stopped trying to bang his head up against John Boehner and the Tea Party crowd. He is trying to make the deal in the less carnivorous Senate—and hoping that if the Republican House is presented with a fait accompli, several dozen non–Tea Partyers can be lured away to get it through.

This will not be easy. Success will depend on the leadership of a half-dozen Republican Senators. They’ll have to forge the compromise and then urge another handful of colleagues to come aboard. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a real leader in this effort, apparently has recovered from his private dismay at the deal Obama and the Republicans made to raise taxes on the wealthy at the brink of the so-called fiscal cliff in January. A majority of the dealmaking Gang of Six, including Coburn, thought that deal was a wasted opportunity. The increased income and capital gains tax rates for the wealthy should have been part of a grander bargain—the Moby Dick of budget deals. As it was, the partial deal gave Democrats an unseemly opportunity to declare victory and Republicans the ability to say, “No more revenue.”

Then came the sequester, an unprecedented moment in American politics. Democrats and Republicans believed that the meat-ax budget cuts were so stupid that neither party would allow them to be enacted—and then they allowed them to be enacted. Both sides now recognize that some sort of deal to ameliorate the stupidity is necessary. And after the sequester, another unprecedented occurrence: the President got all cuddly, inviting Republicans to dinner and visiting them in their Capitol lair and inviting them to dinner again. Never underestimate the American legislator’s need to be coddled.

And so, here we are, with the tiniest sliver of a possibility that something might get done. It doesn’t have to be a big deal—a trillion and a half over 10 years will do—but there must be some significant long-term fixes to the current system. The change in the Social Security consumer price index already proposed by Obama is modest and rational. The wealthy will probably have to pay more for entitlements—and receive fewer personal tax loopholes. (A Mitt Romney–esque cap on tax deductions is very possible.) Medicare needs a structural change as well. It may be that the age of eligibility could be raised according to income or for those who insist on the costly fee-for-service option. Those willing to go the private Medicare Advantage group-plan route, where per capita costs are holding steady, could still be eligible at age 65.

There are those on the left who will object that the deficit issue is overblown and not even a priority among voters. They are right. But we have reached the point where some sort of deal is necessary to restore the public’s, the business community’s and the world’s faith that the U.S. government can, occasionally, take significant action. I predict—tepidly, with no great confidence—that the Congress will finally decide it is time to act.

This article is featured in the “Commentary” section in the  April 22, 2013 issue of TIME