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Supercommittee: Split the difference

Our view: With little more than a week to go, this is not the time to sound the retreat on a deficit reduction compromise

1:27 PM EST, November 14, 2011

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Anyone familiar with the six stages of grief can recognize the noises coming for the congressional supercommittee these days. They are somewhere between denial and depression, but with a Thanksgiving deadline looming, they had better move on to the bargaining stage pronto.

For those who have not closely followed the committee's travails, do not fret. Not all that much has happened since Day 1. And that, of course, is precisely the problem.

The most recent tally has the Republicans standing with a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction offer that raises taxes slightly but also lowers tax rates for the wealthy. The Democrats have come forward with a $2 billion plan that is divided equally between spending cuts and tax increases.

The GOP is already catching grief from its right wing over taxes, the Democrats from the left over the size of the spending reductions. In the real world, this would be considered a good thing, a sign that both parties are making difficult decisions. The next step? Split the differences down the middle and end up with a $1.6 billion package that is 65 percent based on spending cuts and 35 percent on tax increases — or at least something in that neighborhood.

That's how successful employers deal with unions, sports franchises handle player contracts, countries negotiate trade pacts and how dads carve up next week's turkey — until they invent a bird with enough drumsticks to satisfy the half-dozen nephews who want nothing else. Compromises mean everyone comes away from the table dissatisfied to some degree (and the more unhappy the better when it comes to deficit reduction).

But instead of making these painful choices, some are looking for an escape hatch — a way of avoiding both a compromise and the automatic cuts currently set to take place if Congress fails to act. Never mind that backing out now would not only reduce the chances for meaningful debt reduction to ever take place but also lead to adverse market and consumer reactions that could greatly harm the nation's still-fragile economy.

Granted, the terms for automatic spending cuts Congress agreed to if the supercommittee fails — known as "sequestration" — are unacceptable. Even tea party die-hards in Congress don't want the tens of billions of dollars in reductions slated for the Pentagon.

That's the point. Without that threat, there is zero chance that the two sides will reach any meaningful agreement. President Barack Obama made that observation last week when he promised to oppose any effort to set aside those automatic cuts.

Clearly, the easiest thing for GOP members would be to hold the line on taxes and stick to their fantasy that the nation's financial house would be put in order if the country just spent less and reduced taxes for high-earners. Democrats can always please their supporters by defending beloved programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Yet in the end, what does that achieve? It might please Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who desperately wants the supercommittee to fail, but it puts the U.S. on track for a European-style debt crisis. The choices only get harder the longer it takes to address the federal government's long-term budget imbalance.

Granted, it might be too much to expect negotiators to produce a sweeping grand bargain that might, against all odds, capture enough votes in the House and Senate to actually be adopted. Indeed, it's hard to believe any compromise plan could pass the House these days, given Mr. Norquist's iron-fisted rule when it comes to Republicans and tax increases.

But that's not a reason not to try. This is not a moment for partisanship. It's the one chance available to our elected leaders in Washington to demonstrate that they can rise above political self-interest and make the difficult choices that are so obviously in the nation's interest.

Lock them in a room, throw away the key. Deny them food and water. Let them caterwaul and make threats. Watch them go through all the stages necessary before they can finally recognize the reality of their situation — that only painful choices are available.

Nobody stands to win if nothing meaningful comes out of these deliberations (as much as both sides would inevitably claim some kind of Pyrrhic victory by standing pat). But the voters will know the score — a gridlocked, do-nothing Congress retreats to form, and the national interest is left high and dry again. That's a year-old stage of grief the public knows all too well.