Tag Archives: debt impasse

Boehner to the President: Do You Two-Step?

With the August 2 default deadline a week away, President Obama will go on national television tonight, against the backdrop of dueling partisan plans to solve the debt impasse.  Presumably Obama will try to position himself above the political fray but will also, at least implicitly, make the case for supporting the Senate plan unveiled last night by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  The Reid plan would pair an increase in the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion through the 2012 election with a proposed $2.7 trillion cut in discretionary spending across the next ten years.  The plan is controversial, however, because it includes a trillion dollars in proposed “savings” from winding down the U.S. military involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics contend that savings from a reduced U.S. involvement in these wars will occur whether the Reid plan is passed or not, so this does not actually constitute additional budgetary reductions.  (This is the exact criticism Democrats leveled at the Paul Ryan budget plan, which included a similar accounting gimmick.  But now the shoe is on the other political foot.) Another $40 billion would come from reducing “waste, fraud, and abuse” – a perennial congressional scapegoat. In addition, the Reid bill would include $100 billion in mandatory program savings, including $30 billion in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac changes, and additional cuts in agricultural subsidies.  Interest savings from cutting projected spending would produce another $400 billion.

The key element of the plan, almost certainly inserted at the President’s request, was an increase in the debt ceiling past the 2012 election. And this sets up dueling votes with the House Republican plan, which centers on a two-step process.  In step one, an immediate $1 trillion raise in the debt ceiling would be paired with legislation that would cut discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. However, the increase in the debt ceiling would only extend to early 2012.  A second increase in the debt borrowing ceiling would be linked to agreement on an additional $1.8 trillion in spending cuts.

To identify the additional $1.8 trillion in cuts, the Republican House bill would create a bipartisan joint House-Senate committee to report back to Congress by November 23.  Significantly, the committee’s deficit savings could be achieved either through spending cuts or tax increases, or a combination of both — whatever a majority of the committee and, eventually, the House and Senate will support. After the majority of the committee provides its recommendations to Congress, both chambers would be required to hold an up or down vote, without amendments or threat of a filibuster – by Dec. 23. (The Reid plan has a similar proposal to create a bipartisan budget cutting committee in the Senate, whose recommendations would get a guaranteed up-or-down vote in that chamber.) If the committee’s recommendation is shot down, however, there would be reprise of the current debt ceiling impasse, but this time in the heart of an election year – something the President wants to avoid.

To mollify conservative House supporters of the Cut, Cap and Balance legislation, the Republicans would hold a separate House vote on a balanced budget proposal.  The House bill also includes caps on discretionary spending in future years.

Note that neither plan is very specific about where the cuts in discretionary spending will occur, but presumably they are targeting the same areas identified in the “grand bargain”, so in theory there is room for compromise between House and Senate in terms of what will be cut. Neither plan includes tax increases, although there is room for that in the second stage of the House plan.  The major difference between the two is whether to adopt a two-step process or a single extension past 2012.  Both sides claim the credit markets will oppose the other sides’ approach.

Note that both plans face severe obstacles, and carry heavy political risks.  The House bill is more likely to pass its parent chamber.  It still must be granted a Rule by the House Rules committee, but assuming that passes it could come up for a vote on Wednesday, where I expect it to pass the House on largely partisan lines, despite grumbling from conservatives who strongly support a balanced budget amendment, and who likely don’t’ want to raise the debt ceiling without deeper spending cuts.  Boehner’s strategy is clear: by proposing the House bill as an alternative to Reid’s, he hopes to provide political cover to Senate Republicans to vote down the Senate bill. Note that Reid’s bill will face a potential filibuster threat and so will need to muster 60 votes to get through the Senate.

And that’s where the President comes in: his goal tonight is to put public pressure on Senate Republicans to back the Reid bill. However, I expect him to play the centrist, mediator-in-chief role to the hilt, by trying to position himself above the political fray and instead emphasizing the need to compromise. His speech will be followed by a Republican rebuttal by Boehner himself.  I’ll be live blogging, technology allowed.

As always, I encourage you to join in.

The Art of the Deal, Part II: The Sun Will Rise, the Sun Will Set, and I’ll Have Lunch

Both sides of the debt debate fanned out today to make their case on various Sunday talk shows.  Obama’s negotiators – chief of staff Bill Daley and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner were on Chris “I’m No Flake” Wallace’s Fox show and Meet the Press, respectively.  House Speaker Boehner followed Daley on Fox.  Based on what they said, it appears that the debt negotiation scenario I laid out in the last two posts is essentially accurate (as far as one can tell from public comments, which may not be very much.)  Both sides told essentially the same story, albeit with a different spin on why the talks broke down: the sticking point was Boehner’s refusal to consider the additional revenue request the Obama team felt compelled to make in order to placate Senate Democrats after the Gang of Six released their separate deficit reduction plan.

Despite all the media handwringing about a dysfunctional government, the pundits’ fingerpointing and the predictions of impending financial disaster, the key point I took out of today’s talk is that everything is still on the table, including the “grand bargain” initially agreed to, at least in principle, last Tuesday.  Indeed, reading between the lines (always a risky proposition!), it appeared that Obama’s negotiators were signaling their desire to pick right up where the talks stopped on Friday, as if the walkout never happened. They sound almost apologetic for making the additional revenue request.

At this point, however, Boehner holds the stronger cards, and it’s his turn to play.  He has a couple of options.  One is to invite the President back to the table, with the proviso that Obama understand that the additional $400 billion in revenue he requested will not pass the Republican caucus.  It’s a non-negotiable point.  The second is to proceed to direct negotiations with the Senate Democrats on a two-step plan.  Step one would be to raise the debt ceiling for a short time, say, 6 months, paired with an initial cut in spending already agreed to by Democrats.  Significant entitlement reform would be off the table.  Step two would then entail a reconsideration of the “grand bargain” sometime in 2012 – an election year.

As Daley indicated today, the President is adamantly opposed to the two-step plan.  He wants a debt limit agreement that will extend into 2013, past the next election.  Interestingly, however, while Daley walked up to the point of a veto threat, my read of his wording is that he stopped short of actually promising Obama would veto any two-step plan.  If I’m right, this tells me two things:  Obama needs an agreement more than the Tea Party Republicans do.  His preference remains for a grand bargain that secures entitlement reform, which he can then run on in 2012.  But if all he can get is a more limited two-step plan, it would be very difficult for him to veto it, Daley’s bluster to the contrary notwithstanding.

Where do we go from here?  My guess is Boehner works both tracks: he keeps communications open with Obama regarding resuscitating a version of the grand bargain, and he negotiates with Senate Democrats regarding a more limited two-step option.  The fallback option, if he can’t get Senate Democrats to play, is for the House to pass still another Republican-backed plan modeled after Cut, Cap and Balance – but perhaps without the balanced amendment provision – and dare Democrats to vote it down.

As we watch this unfold today, I want you to consider several points that I think the media is underplaying.

1. First, Obama and Boehner both made incredibly risky – some might say statesmanlike – gambles in negotiating the framework of the grand bargain. Keep in mind that Obama had apparently signed on to the framework of a plan that cut spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – a decision that was assailed immediately by all the key Democratic interest groups: MoveOn,  AARP, major labor unions, etc.   Boehner, for his part, agreed to a tax increase (although he refused to call it that) of some $800 billion, achieved through reform of the tax code, and some perhaps overly rosy economic growth projections.  Still, if it walks and quacks like a tax hike…. .   There is no guarantee either player could get these deals through their respective party caucuses.   While the media squawks about the lack of leadership in Washington, Boehner and Obama were showing extraordinary leadership.

2. The media tends to portray the debt struggles as a political game in which party leaders fiddle while the nation burns.  Each side is engaged in a petty struggle to score political points.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that the debate has gone on this long because so much is at stake – these negotiations get to the heart of what it means to be a Republican and a Democrat.  The two sides are locked in a fundamental debate regarding a defining issue: what is it that we want the government to do?  In effect, it is a fight over establishing national priorities. There are strong preferences on both sides, and I would be disappointed if this type of intense, prolonged debate did not occur. And the polling evidence indicates the public is paying attention, even if they do not always understand the details.  This is how the system is supposed to work.

3. If ever we needed a reminder, this last week has provided it: the presidency is an inherently weak office.  But, of course, we do need the reminder.  When George W. Bush was president, particularly after 9-11, critics complained that he usurped power rightfully belonging to Congress and that he acted in imperial fashion.  It was a dubious claim, one fueled more by opposition to Bush’s policies, I suspect, than by any reasoned evaluation of his actual power.  The reality is that when Bush was acting “imperially” he had the full support of a unified party that controlled both houses in Congress.  And when he lost that support, he suddenly looked weak.  Why, critics wonder, doesn’t Obama act more like the first-term, post 9-11 Bush?  Is it because the presidency was suddenly shorn of formal powers when Obama took office?  No.  The reality is that Bush’s apparent authority flowed largely from the political support, or at least deference, he received from Congress.  Without that support or deference, he could do little – as we see with Obama today.  Perhaps the most extraordinary announcement Boehner made last Friday was that he was cutting Obama out of negotiations, and would deal directly with Senate Democrats to end the deficit impasse.  Yes,  some of that  was for show, but Obama basically acknowledged as much when he demanded that the Republicans come up with a plan to avoid a debt default.  One is reminded of Bill Clinton’s plea that he was “still relevant” in the aftermath of the Gingrich-led Republican revolution in 1994.  And that remains the case today – Obama is relevant, in no small part because of his veto power.  But he is working with a weaker hand because he has largely ceded the agenda-setting function to Boehner and House Republicans.

4.  A final thought.  In 1987 star Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens walked out of training camp during a contract dispute.  When asked by the media what he intended to do, Sox General Manager Lou Gorman famously responded: “The sun will rise, the sun will set, and I will have lunch.”  In the next several days you will read stories like this laying out doomsday scenarios and excoriating our elected leaders for playing political games.

Remember I cautioned long ago that this debate would extend until just before the default deadline, and that only then would both sides reach an agreement to end the budget impasse. I am sticking by that prediction.

In the meantime, the sun will rise, the sun will set, and I’m going to have lunch.

Forgive Us Our Debts

In anticipation of the president’s scheduled 11 a.m. news conference (coming up in a few moments), let me briefly break radio silence regarding the debt crisis to make several points:

First, I’ve been reluctant to post on the issue primarily because it’s not clear to me that the political science literature has any more to say about the specific negotiations and related policies issues (although  John Sides is always useful to read) than do the usual policy talking heads.

Second, far too much of the media coverage has focused on the strategic dimensions of the on-going negotiations (who is bluffing?), and on the political implications of the various potential outcomes.  While not denying that the current debate is driven in part by partisan and personal calculations, it seems to me that one cannot evaluate those dimensions without some discussion of what’s on the table.  What is each side proposing?  Alas, beyond some aggregate numbers and broad policy outlines, there’s been very little detail provided regarding the various options under discussion. Ultimately, however, what gets negotiated will largely determine who gets credit, and blame.

Third, there will be no default come August 2.  Whether it is a “grand bargain” (highly unlikely) or some short-term fix that involves a combination of accounting tricks, a short-term extension of the limit, or even the political gimmick floated by Senator McConnell, in which he in effect offered to give Obama the power to raise the nation’s borrowing authority – provided Republicans get to vote against it – the debt limit will be raised.  It is too late, of course, to actually write legislation to solve the debt crisis before the default deadline, so a permanent fix is unlikely, unless it comes in the form of a broad outline of a legislative agreement.

Finally, assuming a quick fix that addresses the debt issue in stop-gap fashion (that is, in a way that gets us through the next election), I don’t think this current debate will prove very salient in the runup to 2012.   It will be trumped by the jobs issue and a debate over the economy more generally.

I’ll try to devote a more extended discussion of the issue after hearing what the President has to say.