The Government Shut Down: We Need Another Daniel Webster by Gregory Hilton

This note was written in 1996. Ted Kennedy's brother John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to Webster in "Profiles in Courage." JFK also chaired the committee which selected Webster as one of the five greatest Senators of all time. The other Senators were Henry Clay (KY), John C. Calhoun (SC), Robert LaFollette (WI) and Robert Taft (OH). Their portraits are on display in the Senate Reception Room.


The major issue on Capitol Hill this week is Friday’s expiration of the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. If the debt is not cut or the ceiling raised, the government would have to be shut down on March 4th. The situation is similar to the 1995 confrontation between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich when the government was shut down twice.
The first furlough lasted 6 days and the next one lasted 21 days. The big difference today is that Democrats control the Senate so Boehner does not have the power Gingrich enjoyed.
If Republicans once again shut down the government, they will immediately have to present their alternative plan. To be feasible it will need to have the support of perhaps five Democrats. If the GOP plan is based on recommendations of the President’s own deficit commission, Republicans will be seen as reasonable and serious lawmakers. That did not happen in 1995/1996, and Bill Clinton was re-elected with 56% of the vote.
In his speech tonight to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the problem will be addressed. He said the House will pass a resolution to fund the government at a reduced level for an additional two weeks.
Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), the Chairman of the Budget Committee, immediately said the Speaker’s proposal is an acceptable solution while lawmakers negotiate a longer-term plan. The Boehner resolution has $4 billion in savings for the two week period, and $2.7 billion of them came from GOP earmark reductions. Those who ridiculed the earmark savings have already been proven wrong.
We will now have another two weeks of negotiations and the result could well be another stop-gap measure. There is no problem rolling back spending to 2008 and even 2006 levels in the GOP House, but the Democratic Senate will continue to be roadblock. Chairman Conrad has long had excellent deficit hawk rhetoric, but Republicans have rarely made progress because of his past calls for higher taxes.
Chairman Conrad has had numerous meetings with Republicans, and while progress has been made, there has been no grand bargain. The House has already approved $60 billion in reductions over the next seven months but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will not permit a vote.
We Need Another Daniel Webster
Our nation faces severe economic problems and the impasse will likely continue unless a liberal Democratic Senator can be found who is willing to work with the GOP. The debt ceiling is a temporary measure while entitlement reforms would be a long term solution.
A great time to announce a grand bargain would be on Monday, March 7th. The date means nothing to our generation but before the Civil War many school children were required to memorize excerpts from the 7th of March Address of Senator Daniel Webster (MA):

I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.

Webster was willing to work with his political foe, Senator Henry Clay (KY), to avoid a Civil War. The efforts resulted in the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the war by a decade. Webster represented the abolitionist stronghold of Massachusetts and his willingness to compromise outraged many of his supporters. James Russell Lowell called him “the most meanly and foolishly treacherous man I ever heard of.”
Webster was forced to resign from the Senate, and once again became Secretary of State. The important point is that he was willing to demonstrate political courage to benefit the nation.
Senator Conrad is already retiring and during his 24 years on Capitol Hill he has always spoken about the massive growth of entitlement programs. Perhaps he might now in Webster’s words be willing to “perform something worthy to be remembered.”
Senator Conrad was a member of Obama’s debt commission and favors its entitlement reforms. The recommendations were passed by an 11 to 18 vote. The result would be $4 trillion in savings and zero deficits between 2015 and 2025. The Domenici/Rivlin Commission sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center has a similar plan.
President Obama is not demonstrating leadership on the deficit and is ignoring his own commission. The Washington Post is calling Obama the “Punter-in-Chief” for failing to address America’s looming budget problems.
Conrad would have to give up his payroll tax hike, and accept means testing and raising the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security. There would be no taxing of capital gains and dividends as ordinary income, or massive defense cuts. Both are deal killers.
There would be political pain associated with reducing Social Security cost of living adjustments, but it would make Social Security solvent and reduce America’s unfunded Medicare liabilities by trillions of dollars.The alternative is to let the deficit escalate every year after 2020 and exceed 100 percent of GDP by 2025.
Why Senator Kent Conrad?
Senator Conrad has a unique background and the stature to attract support from moderate lawmakers. In a public hearing two weeks ago he told Obama’s OMB Director, “History will condemn us all if we don’t do substantially more to reduce debt than is in this budget. I feel it puts at risk the economic security of this country.”
The Chairman said the president’s budget does nothing to bring gross debt down below 100% of GDP where it is headed. He said the debt is impeding our economic growth, “This cannot be the answer for America’s fiscal future.” He kept asking where is the plan to reduce entitlements by $4 trillion. If the Obama administration will not come up with a plan, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said “We should give them one.”
The GOP has an entitlement reform plan that has been waiting since May of 2005. It can be changed, and a $4 trillion reduction is an excellent start. If Conrad and Coons join us, along with two of their colleagues who are already favorable, we can get the nation moving.

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