By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — While Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus plays the host of Let’s Make a Deal during the fiscal cliff negotiations, he might actually serve himself a nice little treat to aid his 2014 re-election bid.
Baucus sits in a unique position, holding the gavel to the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee. That places Baucus in authority, a broker between Democrats and Republicans, who seemingly haven’t moved forward on any deals to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
The role might mean, too, that Baucus could hide a political grenade that could help blow up his career. Baucus, speaking to a “Fixing the Debt” conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., told listeners he favor a long-term extension to the nation’s debt limit.
“It’s time to bite the bullet and make the tough decisions — and make them now,” the senator said, according to Politico.
Baucus feigned concern that Beltway games of brinksmanship and grandstanding could cost the country dearly.
“Any year-end agreement must also include a long-term extension of the debt ceiling. America cannot afford another debilitating fiscal showdown early next year. It has to be a package deal,” he said.
It’s not an entirely unusual thought. U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner expressed similar sentiments a few days ago, though he traveled a step farther and signaled he’d end all debt-ceiling votes forever.
Nor is the proposal beholden to one party.
In 2011, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., proposed throwing out the debt-ceiling votes, allowing the president to unilaterally hike the limit. McConnell’s plan differs from Geithner’s, however, because it would give Congress the authority to block a president’s cap increase.
The Congressional Research Service, too, points out that the limit — and the political fights that ensue prior to raising the cap — sometimes makes life inside the Beltway very difficult.
“The debt limit can hinder the Treasury’s ability to manage the federal government’s finances, as noted above,” says a May 22 historical report on the debt load. “In extreme cases, when the federal debt is very near its statutory limit, the Treasury must take unusual and extraordinary measures to meet federal obligations. While the debt limit has never caused the federal government to default on its obligations, it has at times caused great inconvenience and has added uncertainty to Treasury operations.”
In short, obliterating the fights over the nation’s nearly maxed out credit card — or at very least creating more space between the tussles — could help the government run smoother.
And, it could also help Baucus retain his seat in 2014.
The issue is politically toxic for any Montana politician. Through the last year as first-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester battled U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg for a seat in the Senate, Democrats continually bludgeoned the GOP congressman for voting several times to hike the debt cap.
They never noted, however, that Tester, too, voted to give the nation more debt.
Baucus may look to avoid debt-ceiling votes in 2013 and 2014, the two years preceding his election bout.
Aaron Flint, conservative host of the Voices of Montana radio show, suggested Baucus wants the long-term debt deal for political reasons.
“While Baucus is likely to take some heat for calling for a long-term extension of the debt ceiling, the political calculation seems fairly clear,” Flint blogged Tuesday. “Max Baucus is up for re-election in 2014. He certainly doesn’t want another vote hiking the debt ceiling closer to 2014. If he can get it done once and for all now, he can then hope the voters have two years to forget all about it.”
Voters might have to come down with a severe case of amnesia to forget Baucus’ record on the debt. As a 34-year Senate veteran, the lawmaker has voted for more than his share of debt-ceiling hikes. When he took office in 1978, the nation’s debt stood at $771 million. Now, it sits at $16.1 trillion.
To lend his way to victory, Baucus might need to push for as much as $2.2 trillion, though $1.3 trillion might prove a more realistic estimate.
Here’s a chart on that, via the Washington Post:
Some pundits worry that relaxing the nation’s focus on the debt-ceiling votes would force the taxpayers to dutifully accept ever-higher spending and bigger government.
“It forces us to have a real debate about the level of overall government spending, government taxing and government borrowing—a debate often masked by discussions about the benefits or costs of individual problems,” wrote CNBC editor John Carney last week. “Reducing the debt ceiling to a ceremonial event would be like trying to gain strength by lifting barbells with balloons on their ends.”
Flint offered his own take on the situation, sarcastically writing that Baucus wants to deal with the budget and debt-crisis by allowing more spending.
“The only way to deal with your credit card debt, is to increase the limit on your credit card,” Flint quipped on his blog.
Contac Dustin Hurst at [email protected] or @DustinHurst on Twitter.
— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]