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The Ongoing War: After the Battle Over the Cliff, the Battle Over the Debt Ceiling

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"It's not all I would have liked," says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking of the deal on the fiscal cliff, "so on to the debt ceiling."

The battle over the fiscal cliff was only a prelude to the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling -- a battle that will likely continue through early March, when the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default on the nation's debt.

The White House's and Democrats' single biggest failure in the cliff negotiations was not getting Republicans' agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

The last time the debt ceiling had to be raised, in 2011, Republicans demanded major cuts in programs for the poor as well as Medicare and Social Security.

They got some concessions from the White House but didn't get what they wanted -- which led us to the fiscal cliff.

So we've come full circle.

On it goes, battle after battle in what seems an unending war that began with the election of Tea-Party Republicans in November, 2010.

Don't be fooled. This war was never over the federal budget deficit.

In fact, federal deficits are dropping as a percent of the total economy.

For the fiscal year ending in September 2009, the deficit was 10.1 percent of the gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in America. In 2010, it was 9 percent. In 2011, 8.7 percent. In the 2012 fiscal year, it was down to 7 percent.

The deficit ballooned in 2009 because of the Great Recession. It knocked so many people out of work that tax revenues dropped to the lowest share of the economy in over 60 years. (The Bush tax cuts on the rich also reduced revenues.) The recession also boosted government spending on a stimulus program and on safety nets like unemployment insurance and food stamps.

But as the nation slowly emerges from recession, more people are employed -- generating more tax revenues, and requiring less spending on safety nets and stimulus. That's why the deficit is shrinking.

Yes, deficits are projected to rise again in coming years as a percent of GDP. But that's mainly due to the rising costs of health care, along with aging baby boomers who are expected to need more medical treatment.

Health care already consumes 18 percent of the total economy and almost a quarter of the federal budget (mostly in Medicare and Medicaid).

So if the ongoing war between Republicans and Democrats was really over those future budget deficits, you might expect Republicans and Democrats to be focusing on ways to hold down future health-care costs.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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