By Jonathan Weisman
As the House moved toward a vote last week on a bipartisan budget plan modeled on the deficit reduction blueprint of a White House commission, Washington's conservative and liberal influence machines swung into action.
Within hours, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform joined Heritage Action for America, the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation and assorted conservative bloggers in coming out hard against the plan as an unacceptable tax increase. On the left, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and research groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities denounced the effort as a sham, disguised as the Bowles-Simpson commission report but tilted to the right.
But the plan that its sponsors, Representatives Steven C. LaTourette, Republican of Ohio, and Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, swore would get at least 100 votes across party lines got just 38, and the prospects for compromise on the nation's yawning deficit took a major step backward.
"There are only two things in the middle of the road," said Mr. Cooper, "yellow lines and dead possums."
The beating the Cooper-LaTourette budget took last Wednesday shined a bright light on the difficulties Congress faces of defusing the budgetary time bomb before it explodes on Jan. 1, 2013. If Congress does nothing, that is when nearly $8 trillion in tax increases and automatic spending cuts over 10 years will go into force -- salvation perhaps for the nation's budget deficit but potential disaster for its delicate economy.
The Bowles-Simpson deficit plan - named after the former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles and former Senator Alan K. Simpson, the Republican who was chairman of President Obama's deficit reduction commission -- is regarded by the Washington cognoscenti as the compromise both sides will have to eventually accept before the end of the year.
"When the two parties get serious about compromise and getting something done that reduces the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade, they will turn to something substantive that is very similar to what we have proposed," Mr. Bowles said in an e-mail exchange. "There just aren't that many other viable options."
But last week's blowout showed the opposition to any such compromise is far more organized than the forces of conciliation.
The conventional wisdom that a major deficit deal will be worked out in a lame-duck Congressional session after the November election is making a dangerous leap of faith, Mr. Cooper said. It assumes that after a bruising election, the defeated political party will limp back to Washington ready to give in to the victor. If not, the victorious side will quickly undo the most onerous automatic deficit reduction measures early next year.
"They're going to lose the Senate, and they're going to lose the White House, and the Republicans are going to fix this problem," Mr. Norquist said. The need for compromise is "nonsense," he said. "It won't happen. It doesn't need to happen."
But that scenario depends on a clean win by one side or the other and once-in-a-generation changes to programs like Medicare and Medicaid done through parliamentary procedures to avoid a Senate filibuster.
"The traditional political cure-all is just elect more Democrats or Republicans," Mr. Cooper said. "They'll stick to that until Nov. 6. Then they'll wake up and realize it won't work."
The Cooper-LaTourette budget was proposed auspiciously last Tuesday morning in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Initially, only the proponents of the Democratic leadership's budget plan, as well as the budget proposals by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, were to make their case, but Mr. Cooper's bipartisan plan was given a chance at the last moment. He implored his colleagues to vote for the Democratic leadership plan, as well as one other that reflected the views of their district. Many members gave him their word they would vote for the only bipartisan budget on offer, he said.
Mr. Norquist said conservatives began focusing on the issue the day of the vote. He personally called Mr. LaTourette as well as Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire, a once moderate Republican who came back after his 2006 defeat with a swing to the right. Both Heritage Action and Club for Growth announced their opposition and said a vote for the Simpson-Bowles budget would count against members in their conservative vote ratings. The groups had voiced concern about the Republican budget drafted by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, but they were rallying to it.
"We wanted to unify Republicans around Ryan, handle the "Mediscare' attacks from left, and force the conversation to be between right and left," said Michael A. Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action. "Bowles-Simpson would muddy the message."
With support draining away, Mr. LaTourette went to the House floor with a pointed message to Mr. Norquist, who enforces the "no tax increase" pledge signed by almost all Republican lawmakers.
"We're asking that members tonight stand up, that they stand up to the bloodsuckers in this town who take 5, 10, 15, 25 dollars from our constituents to pretend to defend causes on their behalf," Mr. LaTourette said. "We're asking people to stand up to pledges that they made 20 years ago when we didn't have a 15 trillion deficit owed to China."
It didn't work. Republicans stayed with their leadership. Even Democrats who were publicly pledged to back Bowles-Simpson voted no. If only Democrats joined Mr. Cooper and Mr. LaTourette, that budget would not be the final compromise but the Democratic starting position for future negotiations, aides said. "I wasn't surprised at the attacks from the left and right. I was surprised at the ferocity of the attacks," Mr. LaTourette said.
"I got clobbered by some real pros."