House Speaker John A. Boehner kicked off the 112th Congress by saying Americans are ready for an adult conversation on spending and deficits.
Two years later, that broader conversation has yet to happen, either in the country or in the halls of Congress, where lawmakers were poised Monday to once again nibble at the deficit but shy away from fundamental reforms.
"I have never been here on New Year's Eve, so I don't think one could say if the mark is 'Has this been an adult conversation?' " said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat, who has served in the House since 1983. "I don't think for this Congress it has been."
Lawmakers were quick to shoulder the blame, saying the opposing party was at fault — but not voters.
"They want balance. They want us to cooperate. They want to make sure that all the balance of the books are not on the backs of the poor and certainly want to balance the tax burden, because right now, the tax burden is basically level," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat. "I think that I've had some discussions, but not with the GOP leadership."
Sen. Rand Paul likewise said he has faith in Americans, whom he said are ready to accept the bitter medicine of spending cuts. But he said that's not true of Washington.
"Instead of having a president who runs around saying we're going to stick it to rich people, what we really need are honest people to go around the country and say to people, 'If you are working class or you are retired, the government is stealing from you,'" the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor. "Why do prices go up? Because we run a deficit up here giving you free stuff, we print up money to pay for it, and that steals value from what you have."
Polling, though, doesn't suggest average Americans are just as unwilling to face choices as their leaders in Congress.
An ABC-Washington Post poll in mid-December found most Americans wanted senators and representatives to compromise but also found strong opposition to the spending cuts that would need to be part of any broad deal.
That includes broad opposition to reducing future benefits under Medicare or Social Security, which are the two programs boosting the debt over the next few decades. The poll also found that Americans didn't want to see cuts to the military, whose spending has grown dramatically in recent years.
Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, acknowledged Congress hasn't had a broader conversation about long-term deficits and spending but said that's not for lack of trying on Mr. Boehner's part. Mr. Cole said it's Democrats who don't want to touch entitlement spending such as Medicare or Medicaid.
"Until we have those discussions, you simply can't do it on the discretionary side of the budget alone, where we've had the ability to impose our will," he said.
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