After weeks of dithering and dissent on what to demand in debt-ceiling negotiations, House Republicans have apparently settled on their big ask. They want to reverse cuts made to military pensions and an extension of other sequester cuts to balance those restored contributions, a move designed to quell anger among conservatives for having voted to pass the pension cuts in the first place. Will it work?
Does it ever?
House Republican leaders spent Monday trying to finalize a plan to increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority and avoid a federal default by urging GOP lawmakers to rally behind a proposal that ties a debt-ceiling increase to a plan to restore full pension benefits for some military veterans.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called a “special conference meeting” in the Capitol basement, trying to find the right policy mix that would attract enough Republican and Democratic support for the measure to be approved, possibly as soon as Wednesday. …
Despite the uncertain fate, Boehner’s team moved ahead with the option linking a restoration of recently cut military pension benefits to a one-year extension of the Treasury’s borrowing authority. The cost of restoring that cut to military pensions, about $7 billion, would be offset by an extension, by one year, of planned automatic spending cuts to entitlement programs.
Republicans have been trying to finish the plan before the House adjourns Wednesday for a nearly two-week break. That would keep them from bumping up against the Feb. 27 date that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has set as the deadline for Congress to increase his borrowing authority or risk a default on the more than $17 trillion in federal debt.
This would be a lot more impressive if (a) Republicans hadn’t had to spend weeks trying to figure out what “principled” position they would take on a debt-ceiling-hike compromise, (b) if the “principled” position was one they hadn’t voted against already, and (c) anyone thought the GOP would let the debt ceiling be exceeded. The GOP leadership in both chambers voted to cut those pensions already and lessen the strictures of the sequester in the last budget negotiation. This isn’t a principled stand as much as it is an attempt to relitigate that negotiation and to shift blame for unpopular spending choices from last month with their base.
And even that might have worked, except that no one thinks the GOP will allow the government to blow through a debt ceiling. They backed down every time this particular issue has reached the brink, and there’s a lot less reason to stand fast now than before. Besides, this is a dumb fight, and everyone knows it. The debt ceiling is a mere consequence to the budget, and Republicans have already voted for huge swaths of deficit spending in FY2014 and will again for FY2015 — and that means they have already authorized all of the spending, and not just that covered by federal revenues. Treating the debt ceiling as a separate issue is not just playing with fiscal fire, it’s intellectually dishonest.
Even some of the biggest budget hawks have had enough of it, too:
Buoying Boehner’s chances is the fact that some of the House’s most ardent conservatives who have opposed increasing the debt ceiling in the past are signaling that they recognize a fight is futile.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told the Washington Post Wednesday, “There is a pragmatism here…You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.”
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, suggested that the best route for the party is to let Democrats bear the brunt of the responsibility in extending borrowing authority, and also the brunt of the blame.
Adding to the sense of urgency is the fact that the House just a handful of working days before Feb. 27, the last day that the Treasury Department’s “extraordinary measures” will allow the U.S. to continue meeting its financial obligations. Lawmakers leave town Wednesday evening for a state work period and won’t return until Feb. 25, just two days before the deadline.
It would be great to restore the contributions to military pensions, which shouldn’t have been cut in the first place, and extend the sequester after the retreat last month. Senate Democrats seem open to the first part of that formulation, with a test vote passing unanimously yesterday. But don’t expect Democrats to accept that as part of a debt-ceiling deal, and don’t expect Republicans to hold out for very long on this big ask.
Update: Wiser heads may have prevailed:
BREAKING: house Rs abandoning debt limit plan. Will try to pass clean debt limit. Boehner made announcement in mtg
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) February 11, 2014
Really, why delay the inevitable? The military-pension issue is a good standalone fight anyway.