Have we reached peak bleak in Washington? It feels like it when just about the only thing you hear is Republicans and Democrats making bigger claims about how they won't blink. But let's engage for a moment in some tiny bit of optimism. What if we close our eyes and consider the slim possibilities of a way out of this mess?
Here's one idea. The House could pass a "clean" debt limit increase and clean continuing resolution to keep government funded, which is what the president wants. Then there would be a side agreement cooked up by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that would include something that Republicans want. That agreement would name budget conferees to debate the big issues of spending, taxes, entitlements and economic growth, and it would include some guarantee to make sure the conferees did their work.
This may sound familiar. It sounds like a supercommittee. That's right. There are only so many ways to construct these can-kicking, exit-ramp exercises. Perhaps the group named to follow up on this side agreement could be called the This-Time-We-Mean-It Committee.
Both sides need an escape hatch. When Boehner has told members he won't allow a breach of the debt limit, this is the kind of jerry-rigged deal he's envisioning. Such an agreement would also allow President Barack Obama to stand firm on his position that he won't negotiate, but it also rescues him from the potential downside of looking like he's refusing to act during a crisis that could cripple the economy. In return, House Republicans could tell their supporters that they earned a real chance at future reductions in government spending.
Would this work for Boehner? There would be a revolt from his "Hell No" caucus. But they get that name because we can anticipate their defiance to any possible deal the president would sign.
To keep Republican defections in the House in check, Boehner will remind them what they have already won. Topping the list is the fact that lower spending levels — the cuts mandated by sequestration — are already guaranteed. The newly fashioned side agreement will also have to include something Boehner can sell as an inroad against the growth of entitlement spending.
The House Republicans will suggest something that's already in the president's budget: Medicare-means testing and changing the inflation formula for cost of living adjustments in Medicare, often referred to as chained CPI. Democrats won't like this, and there will be a big dustup. The White House has said repeatedly that those offers in the president's budget were contingent on Republicans agreeing to higher taxes. But if this fantasy ever gets this far, it might take on a certain kind of weight of progress.
The fight over a side agreement will look a lot like negotiating, so every once and a while the White House and Democrats will have to remind everyone that they're not negotiating over the debt limit. Talking about a side agreement to a bigger deal should not be mistaken for a solution to any fundamental problems, but rather a de-escalation of the mutually assured destruction that comes with a debt limit breach.
Will this happen? Reid has said that he would name budget conferees once the debt limit issue is solved. That's a tiny start, but there are lots of reasons this could fail, including that agreeing to sit down at a table is probably all Reid is likely to accept.
Another problem with this scenario is that both sides will have to let the other side have its fiction. Each side must pretend they got a win, and let the other side do the same. That may be asking too much in Washington these days.
There was a time when you could assume that it was always darkest before dawn. But now Sen. John McCain's joke seems more apt: Sometimes it's darkest before it's totally black.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of "On Her Trail."
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