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WASHINGTON - Under a Capitol Dome roiling through a marathon push to avoid a fiscal cliff, one Minnesota congressman is keeping his Norwegian cool.
"There has never been a 'cliff,'" said Rep. Collin Peterson, one of a dwindling number of fiscal hawk Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. "It's been manufactured by the media and it's relentless."
That doesn't mean the farm country DFLer doesn't believe the nation is driving close to a precipice of automatic tax increases and budget cuts. It's just that he doesn't see it as a "Thelma and Louise" moment.
Unless Congress comes together by Monday night on a bipartisan plan to protect most taxpayers from automatic rate hikes, Peterson says that the worst that will happen is that the nation reverts back to the rates of the prosperous Clinton era.
"It's not the end of the world," he said. "We paid them before."
And the automatic budget cuts ("sequestration") that some economists say will stall the recovery? "Frankly, given what's going on right now, I'm in favor of the sequestration," Peterson said. "I don't think we're ever going to be able to cut the budget otherwise."
In the center
Peterson plays the political center like the rockabilly guitar player that he is, and he isn't impressed with the DEFCON 4 political theatrics he's seeing all around him in the Capitol.
To him, it's another sign of the political dysfunction that manufactured the self-imposed year-end deadline. "They're going to be back here on New Year's Eve because they feel they can't afford not to be here," he said.
Though he often plays the contrarian, Peterson has not been outside the swirl of last-minute dealmaking. Hours before House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi entered Friday's summit meeting at the White House, she called to consult with Peterson.
Was there a way to get a one-year delay of "milk cliff," the potentially steep dairy price increases that could accompany a lapsing farm bill all rolled into a fiscal cliff?
"You can't do dairy by itself," replied Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and it former chairman.
With hopes for anything but a stopgap measure dwindling, Peterson sees some virtue in letting nature take its course on the 2011 Budget Control Act, which inadvertently set the stage for trillions of dollars in automatic budget cuts and tax hikes over the decade.
While Democrats decry cuts in safety net programs, Republicans lament cuts in defense. Both sides say they're for middle-class tax cuts. But Peterson says ordinary Americans understand that sacrifices are needed to curb a $16 trillion national debt, the central tenet of the once-formidable Blue Dog coalition. The sequester, he argues, could eliminate as much as a quarter of the debt over the next decade, without Congress having to agree on anything.
No one 'freaking out'
Few politicians preach the inevitability of pain. It doesn't win elections. But Peterson, a Democrat in a Republican district that usually re-elects him by wide margins, says his rural constituents understand it. He thinks it's the politics of the fiscal cliff that they don't get.
"People are mystified about what's going on," he said. "But I saw a lot of people over Christmas and there wasn't anybody who was freaked out about the fiscal cliff. They're wondering, 'Why, you guys, if you're trying to balance the budget, why are you spending more money?'"
In the end, if Congress can't find a way around the cliff, the nation may get a taste of Peterson's medicine, one way or another. And his list of targets doesn't flinch from any of the sacred cows of American politics.
"We've got to cut the military, along with everything else," he says. "They have to be part of the solution, as does Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm programs and everything else, if we're going to get out of this.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.