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Does debt-ceiling mess prove Congress is broken?

There are now fewer than two weeks to go until the government runs out of money to pay its bills, and while there remains some real hope that a deal will be reached to avert a catastrophic default, the process hasn’t exactly inspired confidence.

It’s been more like a Rubik’s Cube where the colors never line up. First, President Obama convened a commission tasked to reduce the deficit, then he seemed to ignore its recommendations. Then a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of Six, took up the charge. The Gang, however, didn’t grow. It shrank. And the White House seemed indifferent. Next, Vice President Joe Biden took over, hosting a round of talks that mostly seemed to feature shots of congressional leaders coming and going from Blair House with no reports of progress. After that, Obama decided to get involved, overseeing another round of negotiations, which fell apart after it became clear that the House wasn’t about to buy into any form that the president was selling.

That prompted the Gang of Six to get the band back together and try again. But while their efforts sparked a brief fever of optimism earlier in the week, Wednesday seemed to positively clank with a somber sobriety, a recognition that maybe trying to raise the debt ceiling, slash spending, reform entitlements and re-jigger the tax code on the fly isn’t the best way of doing things.

Still, any plan crafted by such diametric opposites as Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois would seem to offer the most promise for some kind of accord that almost everyone, House conservatives perhaps excepted, can live with.

It now faces a rocky road, however. The plan, which would cut $3.7 trillion from the budget over 10 years, aggressively achieves some of the savings through cuts to Social Security and the Pentagon’s budget, which is certain to activate powerful constituencies to block it. Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget chairman, said Wednesday he doesn’t like it because it fails to contain healthcare costs.

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But the Senate isn’t taking up the Gang of Six plan Thursday. Instead, it will be debating the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan passed this week by the House, a measure that imposes a drastic cap on federal spending, and that has virtually no chance of becoming law in its current form.

In the meantime, supporters of the Gang of Six plan are complaining that Senate leaders, in the form of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, are more interested in their own plan, which would use a procedural trick to give Democrats a debt-ceiling hike without severe spending cuts, while also allowing the GOP to go on the record opposing it.

Just about no one likes that idea, but because of the intractable nature of the politics involved, it may still stand the best chance of actually becoming the solution. In other words, a deal that nobody embraces (even its author, McConnell, calls it a backup plan) and that avoids tackling larger deficit and entitlement issues while also offering Republicans less in terms of spending cuts might be the only way out of the quagmire.

The House, for its part, won’t spend the day focused on a debt-ceiling deal either, but will instead debate a package of bills designed to undercut the framework of the Wall Street financial regulation passed last session.

And these days it goes without saying that nothing else is getting done, including some trade deals that the White House considers vital.

You can say well, “that’s Washington.” You can chalk it all up to divided government. Or you can say that Congress is broken, which is what longtime Hill observer Norman Ornstein writes Thursday in an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine titled “Worst. Congress. Ever.”

Ornstein’s indictment reads as follows: “Look what we have now: a long-term debt disaster with viable bipartisan solutions on the table but ignored or cast aside in Congress; an impasse over the usually perfunctory matter of raising the statutory debt limit placing the United States in jeopardy of its first-ever default; sniping and guerrilla warfare over two major policy steps enacted in the last Congress, health-care reform and financial regulation; no serious action or movement on climate change, jobs, or the continuing mortgage crisis; and major trade deals stalled yet again despite bipartisan and presidential support.”

Polls show a public frustrated as to why both sides can’t come up with a debt-ceiling plan that can pass. The markets and its money managers are growing increasingly worried that Congress won’t be able to repair its divisions in time to avert a default. And even some Republicans in the House are incredulous that the GOP seems ready to toss away a historic opportunity.

“It’s inconceivable,” veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma told the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Mascaro. “Some of the members who haven’t been here don’t appreciate how much John Boehner has gotten for them.”

Boehner, the speaker, had been working on a deal with Obama that would slash about $4 trillion in spending over 10 years from the budget. The Gang of Six plan would knock out $3.7 trillion over that same time frame. The McConnell plan, on the other hand, likely wouldn’t feature cuts anywhere near that number.

House leaders are holding out hope that they can still come up with their own plan, even if it’s just a short-term fix. But what has become abundantly clear is that divisions within the GOP aren’t cosmetic ones that can be papered over with a compromise bill. It’s too early to know whether Congress is in the grip of a real political or generational transition, but as Mascaro wrote in Thursday’s Times, the House freshman class and other “tea party"-affiliated conservatives see themselves as vanguards of a new era and are more loyal to each other than party leaders such as Boehner.

“I’m fired up more than I’ve ever been that we truly are going to change the way business is done,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), said this week as the Cut, Cap and Balance plan passed the House.

In the long term, Chaffetz could well be right, especially if Republicans take the Senate in the 2012 elections. But right now, the short term matters more crucially. And the way ahead over the next 12 days is as muddled as ever.


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