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The difficulties of cutting U.S. deficit

WASHINGTON -- The coming year-end spending spree after so much debate over budget deficits shows just how hard it is to stem the government's flow of red ink.

Lawmakers are poised to spend $120 billion or so to renew a Social Security tax cut that averaged just under $1,000 per household this year.

They're ready to commit up to $50 billion more to continue unemployment benefits to people out of work for more than half a year.

And doctors have no reason to doubt they won't be rescued, again, from steep cuts in their Medicare payments. Combine that with the tax cuts and jobless benefits, and Congress could add almost $200 billion to the federal ledger this month.

That's why it's excruciatingly difficult to cut the deficit, even when the House is dominated by tea party forces.

The year-end spree follows the failure of three high-profile efforts at big deficit deals: talks led by Vice President Joe Biden; efforts by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to strike a "grand bargain"; and the ignominious cratering of a special deficit supercommittee before Thanksgiving.

Each disintegrated in great measure over the question of taxes. But their failures also illustrate the tremendous difficulty in getting anyone to actually cut spending.

The singular success in attacking the deficit this year came after a protracted battle this summer over whether to let the government continue borrowing. That fight finally produced a promise of more than $2 trillion in cuts over the coming decade.

Even with those savings, new government borrowing would be on track to total four or five times that amount over the same period.

The debt-deficit deal contained virtually no specific cuts to any program. Instead, it would reap $900 billion over 10 years by capping the annual day-to-day operating budgets of cabinet agencies below inflation.

The deal also set up the bipartisan supercommittee and told it to produce a plan that would cut $1.2 trillion more from future deficits.

If the panel failed, as it did, the alternative was automatic spending cuts of a like amount to domestic and military programs.

The budget caps are indeed tough, but they're also easy to support because most of the pain comes in the future. Likewise, the across-the-board cuts, which start in January 2013, won't cause any immediate hardship.

The White House, after saying all fall that Obama's jobs agenda must be paid for with tax increases on high-income earners, appears willing to simply pad the nation's $15 trillion national debt instead of finding offsetting cuts.

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