When lawmakers return from the August recess, they'll face a long to-do list, the most urgent items being the dual fiscal issues of raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. It's a battle that will be reminiscent of many others fought over the past three years between President Obama and congressional Republicans, save for one enormous difference: While Republicans have used concerns over rising deficits to extract major concessions on spending, this time, for the first time in Obama's presidency, the deficit is falling.
How will the GOP respond to this existential threat to their agenda? After all, their core fiscal argument -- that government needs to be cut, no matter the social costs -- has been predicated on the alleged primacy of cutting the deficit. But now, the deficit is cutting itself.
Here's one easy way: Pretend it's still growing. Steve Benen flagged Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, engaging in some deficit denialism on "Fox News Sunday." "What we are trying to do is fund the government," Cantor said. "All the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit."
Republicans have actually been pretty careful since the May 14 Congressional Budget Office report that first showed falling deficits. For instance, just a few days before that, on May 9, Rep. Dave Camp, the head of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, warned about the need to "reduce the growing burden of our debt and deficits." But he has not repeated that claim since. And even Republicans acknowledge that the falling deficit will make it less likely for them to reach a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction with the president.
Whether Cantor's comment was an aberration, a verbal misstep and proof that old habits die hard, or a sign that Republicans are about to embark on a massive reality-denying campaign, is impossible to know at the moment. The ramifications either way are big. If Cantor is alone, Republicans may finally be willing to compromise on the fiscal issues they'll face in September. If he's the tip of the spear of the new deficit-drop denialism, it's going to be a very bumpy ride.
As Benen asks, "How exactly are policymakers going to have a budget debate if the House Majority Leader doesn't even understand this simple detail?" Still, it would seem like a hard thing to let go of, after spending so many years pushing deficit hysteria and investing so much in deficit concerns as a top policy goal. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time the GOP has employed reality denial for political end.