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Column: Summer of Discontent

Jun. 15, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Hagel Testifies At House Hearing On Transfer Of 5
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee about the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on June 11. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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If grapes get too much heat before harvest time, a winemaker can experience what one Virginia vintner once described to me as a “lost year.”

To make a quality vino, a lot of things have to go just right — or, more precisely, right enough.

The same is true when crafting — and passing — federal fiscal legislation.

US President Barack Obama’s deal to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could be the political heat wave that poisons the political soil and destroys ripening grapes for a sequestration-relieving fiscal deal.

The five-for-one swap, which freed a handful of former Taliban leaders, has deepened Republicans’ frustration with the commander in chief. And the flap could force closed a small window that lawmakers say will creak open early next year for shrinking the next round of across-the-board defense spending cuts.

For Republicans and Democrats, including the president, to strike the sweeping fiscal deal that has eluded them for years, a couple of things must go just right — or, at least, right enough.

One needed element is a political environment suitable for a deal.

Congressional Republicans believe Obama gave up too much to get Bergdahl back.

As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other lawmakers have put it: Those individuals who were released will return to the fight and endanger US national security. For this possibility, they blame Obama.

Obama seems to be calculating that most US combat troops won’t even be there when — and if — any of the freed Taliban prisoners make it back to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Republicans who Obama would need to hit the magic 60-vote threshold in the Senate on a sequestration-shrinking deal — especially pro-military ones such as McCain — sharply reject that notion.

Suddenly on Capitol Hill, the aura is eerily similar to 2012. That was the bitterly partisan year of the “fiscal cliff.”

And the home stretch toward November’s midterm congressional elections aren’t expected to lower temperatures to a deal-friendly level.

Another necessary element is a climate of trust — or, at least, just enough trust. Meaning both sides would have to believe the other is negotiating in good faith.

Shortly after talks about a fiscal deal broke down last September, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters the White House had lost credibility with Republican senators.

Nine months later, lawmakers say they should have been briefed by White House officials about the Bergdahl-for-Taliban exchange before it occurred. The White House retorts that members couldn’t have been trusted to keep it secret.

This mutual trust deficit is pushing temperatures higher just when, for a fiscal deal to happen early next year, they need to be dropping. Or at least holding stable.

Obama is hearing little applause on the Bergdahl swap — from friends or foes. But to get even a small fiscal deal, Obama would need both. If that’s to happen, the Bergdahl-triggered heat wave cannot lead to a summer of intensified partisan discontent.

The Bergdahl brouhaha is not about defense spending, sequestration and domestic fiscal policy. But on those issues, it could help produce another “lost year.” ■

John T. Bennett is CongressWatch editor for Defense News. Email: jbennett@defensenews.com. Twitter: @BennettJohnT.

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