Will John McCain leap into the breach?
Does our country face a big problem with deficits? Is it a mistake to add to them?
House Speaker Paul Ryan certainly thinks so. Or he used to. In 2010, he told Fortune magazine that the nation was "sleep-walking toward a debt crisis," and he foresaw calamity on a grand scale. "Within a few years, a sale of government bonds will fail," he said. "The capital markets will go crazy, and the Fed and Treasury will run to Capitol Hill demanding a giant bailout." Wow.
He offered much the same view in 2011. "We face a crushing burden of debt, which will take down our economy," Ryan predicted. "It will lower our living standards."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also once seemed to think it ill-advised to enact a whopping corporate tax cut when the deficit is such an enormous challenge. He said so as recently as last December.
"I think this level of national debt is dangerous and unacceptable," McConnell argued. "My preference on tax reform is that it be revenue neutral."
Yes, McConnell really said "revenue neutral," which usually means offsetting tax cuts with tax hikes elsewhere. He now says that miraculous economic growth will take care of everything.
One other thing McConnell used to believe: that it's a bad idea to advance far-reaching initiatives on a partisan basis. In March 2009, the Republican leader said he had hoped that the newly installed President Obama "would govern more to the middle." He assailed Democrats for instead intending to do as much as they could "on a strictly partisan basis."
"The danger of that, politically, is they end up owning the whole thing," McConnell said, warning of "blowback."
This week or next, McConnell will be pressuring Republicans in the Senate to pass a sweeping, 515-page tax bill on, well, a strictly partisan basis. The radical bill would shift taxes away from corporations and the rich to regular folks and would increase the deficit by at least $1.4 trillion.
When it comes to the middle class, by the way, this proposal doesn't even deserve to be called a tax cut. According to the Tax Policy Center, it would leave about half of taxpayers paying more by 2027.
Republicans are lying coming and going. They hold down the sticker price of the bill and minimize its impact on the deficit by having the middle-class tax cuts (but not the corporate reductions) expire. But they insist that future Congresses would keep the middle-class tax cuts in place.
So they are either lying about the deficit, or misleading the middle class.
Ryan has already burnished his standing as a deficit hypocrite by pushing a comparable tax cut through the House. But don't you worry. As soon as Republicans shovel every dollar they can to the people who pay their party's bills, he'll dust off those old the-sky-is-falling quotes and warn about the deficits he helped to bloat. He'll tell us how urgent it is to slash Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and programs for the needy (although he'll try to bamboozle us again by claiming only to be "reforming" them).
What can stop this duplicitous raid on the federal treasury? A mobilization at the grass roots that tries to muster some of the energy that went into saving Obamacare would be helpful. But in the end, the honor of the Republican Party is in the hands of a small number of senators.
Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona have said over and over that (unlike their two-faced leaders) they actually do care about the deficit, even where this tax-cut bill is concerned. If they don't vote against it, they will be enrolling in the Ryan-McConnell Deficit Prevarication Association. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is as close as there is to a genuine moderate in the Senate GOP. Voting for this utterly immoderate scheme will mean tossing her moderate credentials into a bonfire.
But the man whose voice most needs to be heard is Arizona Sen. John McCain's. Over the last few months, he really has been the conscience of the Senate. This summer, he gave a remarkable speech during the Obamacare debate in which he chided the party's leadership for "asking us to swallow our doubts and force [the bill] past a unified opposition."
"I don't think that's going to work in the end," he said, "and it probably shouldn't."
It definitely shouldn't work on this Pay-Off-Our-Donors tax cut. More than anyone, McCain could give Corker, Flake and Collins the heart to follow their convictions.
E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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