No End in Sight 

As Representative Blackburn’s Bartlett meeting indicated, the budget battle ain’t over yet.


Forget Michele Bachmann. If it's a congressional woman with firebrand conservative views and long-term political prospects you're looking for, you don't have to go all the way to Minnesota to find one. There's one much closer to home, in fact –— Marsha Blackburn, who represents Tennessee's sprawling 7th District, which stretches all the way from metropolitan Memphis to metropolitan Nashville.

And Blackburn, a key member of the GOP's whip team in the House and a frequent TV exponent of her party's talking points, served notice in Bartlett on Monday that the temporary budget deal President Barack Obama just struck with Republican speaker of the House John Boehner to avert a governmental shutdown may not guarantee safe passage over the next hurdle — a vote to raise the national debt ceiling.

As the week began, influential Republicans in Congress such as Texas senator John Cornyn were threatening to hold out on approving a raise of the debt ceiling — something that Obama desperately wants and that even most Republicans concede is necessary to keep the nation's economy on an even keel.

Blackburn herself acknowledges the need to raise the debt ceiling. It's just that she, like Cornyn and other Republican hard-liners, will insist on something in exchange.

"I will not vote for a straight debt-limit vote," Blackburn said at her well-attended "Tax Week Listening Session" at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center. She said the cost of her support would be "spending caps in place" and Democratic sanction for a balanced budget amendment.

"If there is any reason that we have to do some kind of short-term easing ... they have got to put some spending caps in place. States do it. It's high time that the federal government does it, too. ... The days are over that you're going to be able to print money. ... A lot of us oppose having a straight debt-limit vote. That's what the president wants, but I can tell you this: He's not going to get it."

If that sounds peremptory to Democratic ears after the conclusion of a budget deal — rife with $38 billion in reductions — that many Democrats are charging was a sell-out to Boehner, it should be noted that hard-core Republicans, like the 200 or so attendees at Blackburn's Bartlett meeting, feel just as aggrieved.

These are some of the audience comments about the provisional budget deal (technically a "continuing resolution"):

Man: "It was not a win, it was a cave-in. Speaker Boehner basically fell for the fear-mongering of the Democrats."

Woman: "I will sit it [the next election] out if you don't do what we sent you there to do. Stop moddle-coddling these liberals, these Democrats. Stand up!"

Woman: "I want to know why I shouldn't consider this agreement a total failure. I was hoping and praying for a government shutdown. If I saw Boehner, I would be hard-pressed not to stomp his toes!"

The reality is that a vote to raise the debt ceiling may well end up being linked, one way or another, to considerations of the sort mentioned by Blackburn.

The Democrats still control the Senate, but a Republican filibuster there could complicate passage of a debt-ceiling bill. And the House of Representatives is overwhelmingly Republican, after last year's GOP electoral tsunami.

Then, there is a so-called Gang of Six — a bipartisan group of senators, comprised of Democrats Mark Warner (Va.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republicans Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), and Mike Crapo (Idaho) — working on an overall spending concord that could accompany the debt-ceiling measure.

And, speaking of ceilings, another Tennessean, U.S. senator Bob Corker, is getting lots of attention for a bill, called the CAP Act, that would mandate a ceiling for federal spending of no more than 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (as against the current level, which Corker estimates as 24.7 percent of GDP). The ceiling would be achieved over what the senator calls a "10-year glide path."

Corker's bill may be exactly the sort of measure that could form the basis of a trade-off in relation to raising the debt ceiling.

Ironically, when the senator came to Memphis last November, one day after the election, to discuss the ingredients of his spending-cap plan, he was obliged to discuss a story in that day's media concerning the fact that a national Tea Party organization had placed him on its purge list for 2012, when Corker runs for reelection.

"I've been through this before" was the response then from Corker, who four years previously had narrowly defeated Democrat Harold Ford Jr. to win his seat. "In 2006, people tried to nationalize the race I was involved in. This is a small group of people, Washington-centric, who don't like the fact that I actually think about what I do, that I actually ask questions about bills, that I just don't automatically jump up and say yes when the electric shock hits the chair. And that concerns some people."

As the response at Blackburn's meeting in Bartlett indicated, there are still portions of the electorate for whom even the most conservative of political responses seems too mild.

As Blackburn herself noted during the meeting, "In Washington, when you talk about cutting spending, you can get beat up on. When you come home, people tell you, 'Let's cut some more.'"

In other words: As extraordinary as it might seem, there is a point on the contemporary political spectrum that is not only to the right of Corker but of Blackburn, as well — and, for that matter, to the right of U.S. representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who has proposed a plan, backed by Blackburn, that goes much further than the temporary budget accord reached last week.

• Two funeral services — one in Nashville on Saturday and another in Dresden on Sunday — marked the passing of former Governor Ned McWherter, who was quietly buried in between the two observances, both attended by crowds in the thousands.

The Nashville service, held in the War Memorial Auditorium on Capitol Hill, was addressed by former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, among others.

Gore described McWherter, who died the previous week after a battle with cancer, as the greatest governor in Tennessee history. In a speech replete with humorous recollections, Clinton recalled appearing with McWherter at an outdoor Memphis event in 1993 when a stiff wind came up, causing one or two of the other dignitaries sharing the stage to move away from the president himself to get to the other side of the large-framed McWherter for protection.

The most memorable testimonial to the larger-than-life late governor may have come Sunday at the Dresden event, however — from one of McWherter's attending physicians, Dr. F. Karl Vandevender of Nashville's Frist Clinic, who drew animated chuckles as he related a conversation with his famous patient.

"I asked him once how he felt about death. He said, 'I'm on good terms with the Man Upstairs — and with the Man Downstairs.' I never really asked him what that meant. It showed that, no matter how things went, he was prepared to reach across the aisle."

• The New York phase of former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr.'s political career may not have ended with the aborting of his intended U.S. Senate race in the Empire State last year. Writing in the New York Post last week, journalists Ginger Adams and Claire Atkinson noted, "Recently former Tennessee Representative Harold Ford Jr. set tongues wagging when he broke bread with leading Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. 'That could be talk about a possible mayoral run,' a political consultant speculated."

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