The Debt Debate: Do Obama and Senate Democrats Want the Same Thing?

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Ok, as of 9:45 p.m., here is what I think is going on in the debt negotiations, and why. Be forewarned – this is highly speculative, based almost entirely on a couple of emails from congressional aides (none of whom work for the main players), some media accounts and my own admittedly unconventional read of the logic driving Obama, Boehner, Reid and McConnell.

I think the outlines of a deal are in place, largely along the lines I suggested earlier: an extension of the debt ceiling by an amount that will take us past 2012, matched by budget cuts equal to or greater than the increase in the ceiling;  no tax increases; and a balanced budget vote in both chambers.  The sticking point appears to be the trigger mechanism that would force Congress to enact additional budget cuts down the road, based on the recommendations of a congressional commission or similar agency that both Boehner’s and Reid’s bill create.   The framework for passage of the debt bill triggering an increase in the ceiling would be the Boehner House bill, which has been tabled by the Senate, but not yet rejected.  That means Reid’s cloture vote in a few hours will fail, and his bill will be dead.

In short, Republicans will largely get what they want, with one key concession deeply coveted by Obama: taking the debt debate off the table prior to this reelection.  The key to forging the agreement is to understand that Obama’s political interests do not fully align with Senate Democrats’.  He will be running for reelection with economic numbers that have sunk previous incumbents, and no indication at this point that these numbers will improve soon.  Fairly or not, he – and not Senate Democrats – will be held accountable for this by the voters.  He will run with his popular approval likely hovering closer to 40% than 50%, and he has seen what a debt debate can do to those numbers.  In short, even in the best possible scenario – that the Republicans nominate Tim Pawlenty or Ron Paul – he will be locked into the race of his life.  Politically, he cannot afford to revisit this debt debate in 2012.  So he has a huge incentive to cut a deal on Republicans terms, even if it means offending Senate Democrats.

Will Reid and Senate Democrats go along with it?  What choice do they have?  If the Democratic President and the Republican congressional leadership say they have deal, but that Harry Reid and Senate Democrats are holding it up, that doesn’t just hurt Obama – it potentially costs Democrats control of the Senate in 2012.  If I’m a Senate Democrat right now, I’m worried that my President’s political interests are not mine – and there’s not much I can do about it.

That’s my read – right now, but don’t be surprised if I turn out to be entirely wrong.  Always remember my Ted Kennedy election prediction!

10:22 – Breaking News: Reid is not even going to go through the motions of a cloture vote tonight, since he will lose.  He’s announced he’s postponing the Senate vote until 1 p.m. tomorrow.  I’ve got to believe that’s because the two sides are closer to an agreement based on the Boehner bill.

I’ll be on later if details leak.

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