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The city on the edge of forever

The White House and elements in Congress agree that it isn't perfect, but they hammered out a deal this weekend that backers say will save the Republic from defaulting on its debt. That is, of course, if it can get enough House votes, and that will apparently depend on defense advocates' willingness to accept some $350 billion in budget cuts upfront, with the strong likelihood of another reduction at some point in the near term. The agreement President Obama announced on Sunday is so new it isn't clear how it would fare when it comes to a House vote, but it also was designed such that it only does part of the cutting now, and, in classic Washington fashion, punts the rest of the work forward. Only Washington would solve a problem created by putting off hard decisions by putting them off a little more.

Here is the exact text of the White House's explanation of how defense cuts will play into the grand deficit-reduction scheme. The deal, it said:

Includes Savings of $350 Billion from the Base Defense Budget – the First Defense Cut Since the 1990s: The deal puts us on track to cut $350 billion from the defense budget over 10 years. These reductions will be implemented based on the outcome of a review of our missions, roles, and capabilities that will reflect the President’s commitment to protecting our national security.
So that means the ongoing Mother of All Reviews would regain its stature as the most important soup-to-nuts analysis in decades, and it would give the military brass and congressional defense advocates what they've insisted they most want: A road map for the splashdown, one that makes strategic choices about what to keep and what to deal, as opposed to the infamous "haircut." But let's not kid ourselves -- congressional defense advocates often make it sound as though even a single dollar's reduction in the defense budget would effectively hand America over to Communist invaders, so they may continue to be the toughest audience on spending cuts. Especially since the next phase of Washington's compromise plan involves -- wait for it -- oh yes ... a blue-ribbon panel! And this eminent corpus of wise decision-makers, the first ever convened in the history of American government, must then determine how to make further cuts to the U.S. budget.

But there's a gun pointed at the head of this panel, which has been called the "Super-Congress" because of the special powers it will have to fast-track legislation over the normal Hill gridlock. If the members can't make a decision on how to achieve an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts by Nov. 23 -- or if they do, and Congress doesn't approve them by Dec. 23 --  the gun fires. Here's how the White House's announcement described it:

The deal includes an automatic sequester on certain spending programs to ensure that—between the Committee and the trigger—we at least put in place an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by 2013.

Consistent with the bipartisan precedents established in the 1980s and 1990s, the sequester would be divided equally between defense and non-defense program, and it would exempt Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, programs for low-income families, and civilian and military retirement. Likewise, any cuts to Medicare would be capped and limited to the provider side.

If the fiscal committee took no action, the deal would automatically add nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of cuts already made, and, at the same time, it would cut critical programs like infrastructure or education. That outcome would be unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike – creating pressure for a bipartisan agreement without requiring the threat of a default with unthinkable consequences for our economy.

Did you copy that? If Team America can't get another, broader deal, the dead man's switch would leave DoD with a net reduction of about $850 billion over the coming decade, more than double what the services have been preparing to absorb. Theoretically, the advance analysis now underway, along with DoD and service officials' vows to avoid a "hollow force," would again help the Pentagon be smart about those reductions, ultimately leaving America with former Secretary Gates' smaller, but broadly capable military. Or, just as likely, not.

There's a chance the Super-Friends could get a master bargain that spares those kinds of big cuts for DoD, but if this summer has taught us anything, it's that Washington's dysfunction has made compromise almost impossible. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if this blue-ribbon commission played out like a miniature version of the debt ceiling crisis, with an important exception: Lawmakers could dither and bicker and pout without any fear of their deadline, because everyone could prepare himself to blame opponents for the cuts everyone knew would automatically happen. Republicans could then campaign in 2012 against the dastardly Democrats who had weakened American security, just as Democrats could rail against the stingy Republicans' never-ending heartlessness.

Or none of this could happen -- House hardliners could hold out and the U.S. could default on its debt on Tuesday, which some conservatives believe would be the only way to shock Americans into accepting major, structural changes in their government. Whatever happens, Sunday's announcements about this debt bargain don't mean the end of this story -- in fact, they might not even be the end of the beginning.

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