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Lindsey Graham's reasonableness comes with fine print

There's been quite a bit of coverage over the last 24 hours of some Republican lawmakers, most notably Sen.
Lindsey Graham's reasonableness comes with fine print
Lindsey Graham's reasonableness comes with fine print

There's been quite a bit of coverage over the last 24 hours of some Republican lawmakers, most notably Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), saying publicly they're prepared to blow off Grover Norquist's anti-tax "pledge" as part of a larger deal. Before the political world gets too excited, though, it's worth paying attention to the fine print.

A pair of congressional Republicans reiterated their willingness Sunday to violate an anti-tax pledge in order to strike a deal on the "fiscal cliff," echoing Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who suggested last week that the oath may be outdated.Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he was prepared to set aside Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge if Democrats will make an effort to reform entitlements, and Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) suggested the pledge may be out of step in the present economy.

Yes, all of a sudden, Norquist's pledge is losing friends fast. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said last week, "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," and the political establishment swooned when Graham proclaimed yesterday, "I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform."

To be sure, Norquist's waning influence is a positive development, as is the larger shift in the debate -- Washington is no longer arguing whether to include more revenue in a debt-reduction deal, but how to include more revenue.

But to characterize Graham's position as some kind of major concession is a mistake. Indeed, while the South Carolinian's position is ever-so-slightly more constructive than some House Republicans', the closer one looks at his approach, the less reasonable it appears.

What he's proposing is Republicans to get what they want on both sides of the budget ledger.

Let's unwrap this a bit. On the one hand, Graham is willing to accept new revenue. Through slightly higher tax rates on millionaires and billionaires? Absolutely not -- Graham specifically proclaimed, "I will not raise tax rates to do it."

So what will the Republican senator tolerate? Mitt Romney's plan. Here's what Graham offered yesterday:

"When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans should put revenue on the table. We're this far in debt. We don't generate enough revenue. Capping deductions will help generate revenue. Raising tax rates will hurt job creation. So I agree with Grover, we shouldn't raise rates, but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions."

In other words, Graham -- being singled out for praise today for being so "reasonable" -- would demand that Bush-era tax rates be left in place for everyone, including the very wealthy, but he'd consider a cap on deductions. As a practical matter, his "concession" is being open to adopting Romney's revenue proposal.

In exchange, Graham expects Democrats to reward Republicans with "structural reforms" to support programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. What kind of "reforms" are they seeking? We don't know -- no one in the Republican Party has been specific about the kind of entitlement cuts they expect to get in a bipartisan deal.

Stepping back, consider the general framework of the proposal we heard yesterday: on the one hand, Republicans would get the tax rates they want. On the other hand, Republicans would also get the entitlement changes they want.

And because Grover Norquist doesn't like it, this is considered the reasonable GOP offer.

Democrats, after a very successful election cycle, are being asked to accept a deal in which Dems concede on tax rates, concede on entitlements, and accept the reward of Romney's revenue plan? This is what passes for bipartisan compromise in late 2012?