Page 2 of 2 Previous
In 2011, Obama and Boehner came tantalizingly close to striking a "grand bargain" that would have increased taxes and contained some of Medicare and Social Security costs. But the deal didn't hold.
It's difficult to imagine a set of circumstances anytime in the near future that would bring both parties that close to a significant deal again. Instead, the $1.1 trillion budget agreement struck by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., eased across-the-board mandatory spending cuts and defused any chance of an election-year shutdown.
"They kind of did a grand bargain — they agreed not to do anything," said Robert Bixby of the budget watchdog group The Concord Coalition. "The Ryan-Murray budget was basically an agreement to stop fighting."
The past three years of confrontations have focused almost exclusively on those aspects of the budget that require annual approval — the "discretionary" portion of the budget. Untouched have been the huge benefit programs, which are most responsible for the debt.
"The tragic part of it is, all the anguish we're going through isn't dealing with two-thirds of the American budget," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who co-chaired a presidential debt commission created in 2010.
Politically, Social Security and Medicare are much tougher to tackle. While the public does demand fiscal discipline, it often rebels when spending reductions affect them. Consider the GOP letter demanding restoration of Medicare Advantage cuts. Or a recent letter from 16 Senate liberal Democrats calling for Obama not to include in his budget any provision that would reduce increases in Social Security benefits to future retirees. As it turns out, Obama will not.
"You're never going to hit anybody because they'll roll in and roll you over," Simpson said.