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Debt ceiling talks: What they really mean

@CNNMoney May 9, 2011: 2:07 AM ET
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Eric Cantor, a House Republican leader, and Vice President Joe Biden began debt talks on Thursday.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The formal negotiations over the nation's debt have begun.

On Thursday, Vice President Biden and a bipartisan group of six lawmakers had their first meeting to work out a framework for long-term debt reduction.

But the group's real red-meat goal is to come up with something -- anything -- that can pave the way for lawmakers to support an increase to the country's debt ceiling. (Debt ceiling: What you need to know)

The clock is ticking: The current $14.294 trillion cap on the debt will need to be raised by early August at the latest.

In that context, any "framework" that the Biden group devises -- or, if they fail, any 11th hour deal cut by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner -- is likely to be only a first step and not a comprehensive plan.

Observers identify three provisions that might end up in a deal: A target for future budgets, triggers for enforcing that target, and some spending cuts.

The negotiators, of course, will find much to disagree about on all three.

Targets: Should the target be to bring spending down to a certain level relative to GDP by a given date, annual deficits or total debt? The GOP wants to focus a target on spending. The president wants deficit caps, which would mean lawmakers could cut spending and raise revenue to meet the target.

Triggers: Should the trigger -- intended as a sledge hammer that would come down if lawmakers stray from the path to meeting their target -- be restricted to spending cuts and if so, should any programs be exempt from automatic cuts? Or should a trigger involve tax increases too?

The GOP has flatly ruled out tax increases fir a trigger. Deficit hawks and Democrats prefer an enforcement measure that triggers both spending cuts and tax increases -- the idea being that there will be something for everyone to hate and therefore wish to avoid.

Whatever enforcement mechanism lawmakers choose, they need to "make it as ugly as possible to ensure they make the policy choices on their own terms," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Spending cuts: What exactly should be sliced? There may be some opportunity for bipartisan agreement -- like cutting subsidies to wealthy farmers.

But a lot of the really low-hanging fiscal fruit was snatched up this spring when, at risk of a government shutdown, Republicans and Democrats went to the mat over a six-month spending bill for 2011.

What if Congress blows the debt ceiling?

The way forward will be hard.

First, the negotiators will need to agree on a deal. Then rank-and-file legislators will need to vote for it.

But presuming Congress salvages things before the debt-ceiling stalemate causes painful consequences for the economy, there will still be many miles to go before policymakers meaningfully address the long-term debt.

In fact, hopes for such a plan coming this year have been all but dashed.

The latest great hope was that the bipartisan Gang of Six in the Senate would put out a bill before the Biden group met. The six lawmakers have been working privately for months to write legislation based on the president's debt commission plan.

But the Gang of Six still hasn't shown its cards.

"The goal of the [Biden] talks has been altered, likely due to the stalling of the Gang of Six talks and the general agreement that nothing of any real substance will be accomplished on the deficit until after the 2012 elections," said Chris Krueger, political strategy analyst at MF Global's Washington Research Group, in a research note.

And that stalling has left one gang member in a tough spot. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad had been waiting for the group to release a plan before revealing his 2012 budget resolution, which is now expected next week.

Republicans will find much to dislike about any plan Conrad settles on, just as Democrats have been excoriating the budget resolution put out by his counterpart in the House, Republican Paul Ryan.

That partisan crossfire could all but guarantee that Congress will not have a budget in place when fiscal year 2012 begins on Oct. 1. And that would mean more risk of a government shutdown like the kind the country just experienced.

Despite the drama, deficit hawks note that Congress has come a long way from where it was a year ago, when few lawmakers were talking about how to reduce U.S. debt or even acknowledged it was a problem.

"I think things are slowly, fitfully moving forward," said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit watchdog group started in the early 1990s. But, he added, "It's not smooth. And it's not pleasant to watch." To top of page

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