Monthly Archives: July 2011

My Ox Was Gored, the Veto Threat and Other Developments

As Speaker Boehner and the Republican House leadership struggle this morning to lock down the votes needed to pass the Republican debt limit bill, there were a couple of other developments.

First, the President gave a brief statement this morning that essentially reiterated his belief in the necessity of a bipartisan compromise, and he once again urged people to write their congressman, noting that when he last made this pitch, the public response was overwhelming.  Again, however, it’s not clear to me that the people who are writing in are doing so in favor of bipartisan compromise; my guess is that the communications are coming mostly from issue activists on both sides of the political divide, telling their representatives to hold tight against the forces of evil.

What was more interesting is what Obama did not say: once again, he did not offer his own plan, nor did he promise a veto threat of the existing plans, despite previously releasing a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) noting that his adviser would recommend a veto.  As Peter Baumann reminds me, this is typical language when preparing a veto threat.  But there are exceptions – Obama was much more explicit in promising to veto the Republican Cut, Cap and Balance bill.  I think it’s significant that he has not yet gone that far with the Republican bill.  Of course,  his Press Secretary is arguing that the veto issue is moot, since the Republican bill will never pass the Senate.

As if lawmakers needed any more incentive to act to prevent a default, the second quarter economic report was not good, with growth the slowest since the recession “officially” ended.  This is not good news for Obama’s reelection prospects.

Finally, Tom Harkin joins the growing line of Democrats arguing that Obama would be justified in invoking the 14th amendment to end the debt impasse.

It is fascinating, and not totally unexpected, to hear Democrats who bitterly complained about George W. Bush asserting strong executive power to act in a national emergency now reversing field and urging Obama to emulate Bush, while Republicans have suddenly become the defenders of the Constitution.  It all about whose ox is gored.

At this point, depending on the whip count, Boehner is planning to bring the Republican bill to a vote today.  Meanwhile, the House Rules committee has issued a rule that will allow the House to vote on the Reid bill as well.  In the Senate, Reid has acknowledged that they can’t wait for the House to act to start deliberations, so they will begin debate today as well.

It is make or break time. More later today as developments come in.

And the House Vote Is…..!

Delayed, at least as of this writing (at 10:11 p.m.).  Evidently Boehner and Cantor are trotting the fence-sitting Republicans in to Boehner’s office  to make the case for supporting the leadership bill, but it is simply too close to risk bringing the bill to vote.  If the blog sources are correct, Boehner is not offering earmarks in return for support.  As a congressional aide emailed me, “You talk about the legislative coffers — a few years ago they’d just promise a bridge and we’d be all good to go. Now they don’t have any arrows in the persuasive quiver. What are they going to say, vote for this bill or we’ll KEEP funding that agriculture program in your district???”

So what is Boehner offering?  My guess it’s a combination of tweaks to the bill to include a stronger “trigger” so that in a two-step debt ceiling process, Congress is forced to make more spending cuts in the second round next year, as well as a clean up-or-down vote on a balanced budget amendment.  Remember, many of the fiscal conservatives and Tea Partiers want to be able to go back to their districts and show that they voted for the balanced budget amendment, particular since several conservative lobbying groups (Club for Growth) have noted that they will score this as a key vote when rating legislators’ voting record.  If you are going to take a hit on this vote, at least soften it somewhat with a second one to balance the voting record.  And while it  is true that most of the “no” or “leaning no” votes are in safe districts, some of them may be concerned about getting primaried from the right.

But I think Boehner is also making the argument that it is important, in a multi-step bargaining game, that Republicans stick together on this first vote in order to force the Democrats in the Senate to go on record in opposition.   Republicans will still get a second shot at more spending cuts when the inevitable counteroffer comes from the Senate.  In short, Boehner is saying, “Don’t let my speakership fall because of this vote.  Send a signal that we will stick together.”

Meanwhile, as I follow the debate, there’s a couple of interesting tidbits to report.  First, Nancy Pelosi is promising anyone who will listen that Democrats will not support the Republican House bill.  In truth, Pelosi is largely irrelevant to this debate in the House  – I’m pretty sure Boehner is not thinking at this stage that he needs to win Democrats to pass this bill.

It now appears that the bill is going to be tweaked in the Rules Committee.  If so, and if I remember my parliamentary procedure correctly, that means the Leadership will need a vote on the new Rule before taking up the bill.  That can be done on an expedited basis, but it’s another complication.  This is looking like a late night.

I think I’ll stay with this post until my scotch runs out (Hint: it has never run out).   If you are following this, comments are welcome……

10:37 p.m.  Well, that was quick.  No sooner do  I  open the scotch bottle than multiple sources report Boehner has pulled the plug for tonight, so that the Rules Committee can tweak the bill and presumably issue a new rule prior to the vote tomorrow.  If that’s the case,  we’ll have to do this all over again tomorrw.   I’ll try to set the table in the morning.  See  you then….

Does Boehner Have the Votes? A Look at the Holdouts

With last-minute news reports suggesting that Speaker Boehner does not yet have the votes to pass his deficit reduction bill in the House, I thought it might be worth looking more closely at who the potential Republican “no” votes are.  Assuming the House leadership gets no Democratic support, Boehner cannot afford to lose more than 23 Republicans. According to the Hill, there are already 25 “no” or “leaning no” votes, which may explain why Boehner is apparently pushing the vote back until later this evening.

Who are the “no” votes?  Here’s a chart, courtesy of Anna Esten, based on the Hill’s latest whip count, summarizing some district and voting related facts for 22 of the declared “no” votes.  I’ve arrayed hem in ascending order based on the percentage of the vote Barack Obama received in their district in 2008.


Representative District %vote %district vote Obama in 2008 Voting Ideology Rank
Graves, Tom GA-9



4th most conservative
Chaffetz, Jason UT-3



52nd most conservative
Huelskamp, Tim KS-1



56th most conservative
Gohmert, Louie TX-1



116th most conservatve
Gingrey, Phil GA-11



62nd most conservative
Paul, Ron TX-14



216th most conservative
Duncan, Jeff SC-3



7th most conservative
Broun, Paul GA-10



24th most conservative
Flake, Jeff AZ-6



33rd most conservative
Gowdy, Trey SC-4



2ndmost conservative
Jordan, Jim OH-4



1st most conservative
Harris, Andy MD-1



191st most conservative
Mack, Connie FL-14



38th most conservative
Akin, Todd MO-2



76th most conservative
Gosar, Paul AZ-1



124th most conservative
King, Steve IA-5



221st most conservative
Bachmann, Michele MN-6



89th most conservative
Mulvaney, Mick SC-5



40th most conservative
Southerland, Steve FL-2



30th most conservative
Ross, Dennis FL-12



19th most conservative
Amash, Justin MI-3



139th most conservative
Walsh, Joe IL-8



74th most conservative


Two factors stand out.  All of them, except for Joe Walsh, come from districts in which Obama received less than 50% of the vote in 2008.  And 16 of them come from “safe” districts, defined as having won more than 55% of the vote in 2010. Eleven of them are members of the House Tea Party caucus. Eleven are also within the most conservative quartile of the Republican caucus.

In short, this means most of them are largely immune to political pressure, and few have any incentive to support a bill that doesn’t address their core concerns, which for most of them is a significant reduction in spending paired with a balanced budget amendment. Moreover, many of them are opposed to Boehner’s plan to appoint a bipartisan congressional committee to suggest further deficit reduction measures, for fear they may come back with a plan that includes tax hikes. To mollify this group, Boehner is promising a separate vote on a balanced budget amendment, but this may not go far enough.

If Boehner is to pull this off, he’s going to need to persuade them that they are more likely to get the cuts they want if they stick with the House leadership now, and put the Senate’s feet to the fire.  However, if the House measure doesn’t pass, and the Senate simply passes a version of the Reid bill and sends it to the House, the House could still attach a balanced budget amendment to the revised bill and send it back to the Senate, with very little time for the Senate to act before the August 2 deadline.  So many Tea Party activists may be waiting for that scenario, instead of signing on to the Boehner bill.

Can Boehner get his bill through the House?  Keep in mind that in addition to these no and leaning no votes, there are at least another 10 Representatives who are undecided.  Boehner needs to hold all of them. Expect Boehner to open the legislative coffers in the next two hours.  Let the bidding begin!

I’ll be on later tonight with updates.

Is Obama Planning to Invoke the 14th Amendment to End the Debt Crisis?

           In an earlier post that received not a little attention, I made the case for why arguments that  Obama should invoke the 14th amendment to settle the debt impasse were not just constitutionally dubious – they were politically stupid, not least for Obama.  As the default deadline looms larger, however, the crazy talk won’t die. House Democrat James Clyburn  is the latest public figure to make the case for invoking the 14th amendment.  As the pressure to do something to settle the impasse intensifies, will Obama take the plunge?

In this guest post  cross-listed at his EducationNext website, Harvard political science Professor Paul Peterson explains why he just might:

How Obama will End the Debt Crisis on his Own Hook: The NCLB Precedent

            If the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stalemate provides a precedent, President Obama will use an executive order to raise the debt limit, invoking the 14th Amendment as his constitutional bedrock. Though never done before, that action will, in an instant, give him the “Clean Bill” he requested from Congress—an increase in the debt limit through election day, with no cuts in spending, no nothing.

Here is the relevant clause from the 14th Amendment: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.

            The language is ambiguous. The context for these words  refer to the immediate Civil War situation, as the amendment makes clear that the United States refuses to honor the debts of the seceding states  insists that its own debts are inviolable.  But the amendment’s language is broad enough that a president could claim those words give him authority to raise a debt ceiling by executive action. It might take the courts years to say he was wrong.

The New York Times, whose articles often reflect Obama Administration thinking, has run at least two stories suggesting that the 14th Amendment allows the president to raise the debt ceiling on his own. Already, at least one Democratic member of Congress has insisted that the president should take such action. And it should be noted, above all, that Bill Clinton has told reporters that there is no doubt in his mind that he would have invoked 14th Amendment authority had he faced this situation.

            Obama already had shown he is more than willing to use executive power when faced with opposition on Capitol Hill.  With presidential backing, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has announced that states can get a waiver from NCLB requirements should they agree to  Obama Administration’s Race to the Top guidelines.  Substituting presidential preferences for explicit laws passed by Congress is an extraordinary invocation of executive power, but Duncan says it is necessary to take such actions because of the legislative stalemate.  Well, that NCLB stalemates is small potatoes compared to the debt crisis agonizing the nation today.

So if President Obama is willing to gut NCLB on his own hook, there is no reason to think that he will hold back once the debt crisis reaches its 11:59th hour.  Indeed, a plan to invoke such authority is a likely explanation of presidential actions thus far.

            So far the president has made no explicit publicly presented proposals to resolve the crisis other than calling for a “Clean Bill,”—that is, no spending cuts whatsoever—which is exactly what the executive order would achieve. At one point Obama and Speaker Boehner were alleged to have come close to a “grand bargain,” but at the last minute the president killed that supposed deal by demanding a 50 percent increase in tax revenues, an extraordinary last-minute demand that implied the president did not take the negotiations seriously. Most certainly, they brought the negotiations to an end, as Boehner no longer trusted his negotiating partner.

As strange as that perverse presidential action was, it is understandable—even predictable, if he–from the very beginning–sought a crisis that would force executive action to save the nation from bankrupty.

Nor have the president’s Democratic allies in the United States Senate shown any desire to bring the crisis to an end.  From Harry Reid, there is talk of possible legislation, but, as of now, no bill has yet been brought to the floor for action. Is this because Reid has been unable to get the super majority he needs, or is it part of the plan to create the crisis requiring the invocation of the 14th Amendment?

Assume Speaker Boehner in the House of Representatives manages to rein in the Tea Party and gets his bill through the House.  Assume the Democrats in the Senate refuse to agree to the House legislation and are unable to pass any legislation on their own. At that point, if the president wanted to solve the problem through legislative action could publicly ask the Senate Democrats to reach a compromise with Boehner.  He would very likely succeed, as their future is tied to his.

But perhaps the president wants a stalemate, so he can invoke his executive authority. At that point he says nothing other than to blame the Republicans for the crisis. Then, if the Senate does not act, the president can say he is left with no choice but to invoke the ambiguous language in the 14th Amendment.  He can issue an executive order raising  the debt ceiling—despite the fact that no president previously has ever dared to do just that.

            There is a risk.  The public could become outraged at such a usurpation of legislative power.  Certainly, the Republicans will say that he has become a modern-day Caesar, seizing the powers of the legislative branch for his own purposes.  But the president, whose poll numbers currently are falling, may gamble on the fact that such an exercise of presidential authority could solidify his image as a strong president.

            There is nothing in Obama’s presidential history that suggests that he is unwilling to make such a gamble.  Remember stimulus, remember Obamacare, remember the election of 2010.  In each and every case, Obama went “all in.”  He is not a compromiser; he plays his hand carefully but he is not afraid of trying to run the table.

            I am not saying this will happen. But if Obama’s handling of the NCLB stalemate provides any precedent, then debt limit lifting by executive action is as likely as any other outcome the prognosticators are forecasting.

The Debt Impasse: What They Say and What They Mean

As we near the endgame – perhaps – in the debt negotiations, both sides have ratcheted up their public rhetoric.  Today all 53 Senate Democrats signed a letter informing House Speaker Boehner that they would not accept his most recent debt reduction plan.  Boehner’s latest proposal, revised in light of the CBO scoring of the original bill showing it would fall short of its deficit  reduction target, would cut spending by $917 billion over 10 years, including $22 billion in cuts in 2012.  However, Senate Democrats are opposed because the amount of spending reduction in Boehner’s bill would mean the debt ceiling would need to be raised again in 2012, before the next election.  Meanwhile, Republican Study Committee Chairman and prominent Tea Partier Jim Jordan (Ohio) said yesterday that Boehner’s bill did not have the votes to pass the House.  Finally, White House aides released a statement shortly after Obama’s prime time address that they would recommend that the President veto Boehner’s bill.

Collectively, these public statements suggest there is no room for compromise before the August 2.deadline, at which point the U.S. will begin defaulting on its loan payments. (Senator Reid’s alternative budget plan has almost no chance of passing the Senate.) In this game of debt ceiling chicken, it appears both parties would rather drive the budget vehicle off the cliff than compromise.

Or would they? Public rhetoric can be intentionally deceiving.  It’s often the case that what is not said – or how something is said – tells us more about the speaker’s motivations.  Let’s start with President Obama’s nationwide address on Monday.  As I noted during his speech, although he expressed a preference for Reid’s bill over Boehner’s, he did not promise to veto Boehner’s legislation.  After his address, White House aides indicated they would recommend a veto.  That is perhaps the most tepid veto threat I can recall, and it clearly signals that Obama is leaving his options open.  If Boehner’s bill is all that is on the table, Obama may be amenable to another short-term extension or even, gulp! – be willing to accept a modified version of the Boehner bill.  Note that Obama called for a “balanced” approach to debt reduction, by which he means legislation that includes additional revenue.  That’s fine, but there is currently no bill on the table that does that – unless he is signaling a willingness to return to the “grand bargain” that Boehner rejected last Friday.

What about House Republicans?  Jordan’s comments would suggest Boehner’s plan doesn’t have the votes to pass.  But again, if you are holding out for deeper spending cuts – which almost all Tea Partiers in the House are – it makes no sense to publicly sign on to Boehner’s bill now.  Far better to threaten to defect in hopes of leveraging greater spending cuts.  A similar logic is likely driving Senate Democrats.  If Reid is negotiating behind the scenes with Boehner right now – and I suspect that is the case – Reid’s hand is strengthened by a unanimous show of strength by the Democratic Senate caucus.  But keep in mind that there is even less chance that Reid’s debt reduction proposal will pass the Senate, never mind the House.

My point is that public statements are part of the negotiating game.  Although they feed the media’s need for sensationalism and controversy, you should not take them at face value.  Instead, it often makes more sense to pay attention to what is not said, or how something is said, rather than what is said  – and why. Both sides realize they are in the end game, and each is hoping to convince the other that they will not yield.  That’s part of the process – but it’s not the important part. The important part  is what the media is not reporting – the details of negotiations between Boehner, the Republican caucus in the House, Reid, and the Senate Democrats.

If they are close to an agreement, don’t be surprised if Obama signs on to a very short extension in the debt ceiling.  But much depends on tomorrow’s House vote on Boehner’s revised bill (assuming he brings it to the floor).  If it passes, the ball is in Reid’s court and it will be tough for him and Senate Democrats  to resist compromise.  If it fails – and I don’t think this will happen – it will put more pressure on Boehner to craft legislation that either moves toward the Tea Party – or that abandons them in favor of crafting a deal more favorable to Reid and the Senate Democrats.

Stay tuned.