I thought this might happen. There aren’t going to be any deep spending cuts anytime soon; America watched Obama do jack about the debt for four years and then reelected him overwhelmingly. The only incentive The One has to partner with Republicans on entitlement reform is his own conscience about America’s long-term insolvency, which is to say that he has zero incentive. Faced with that reality, not only will the GOP achieve next to nothing by going to the mat on the debt ceiling, they’ll do damage to themselves politically by pounding the table for painful entitlement cuts that won’t even get to Obama’s desk. As Krauthammer said in his column this morning, “Don’t force the issue if you don’t have the power.” His suggestion: Try to win the messaging war now by making Democrats pass a budget and then, when you’re on firmer ground politically, force the issue later.
Which is exactly what Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan have in mind. Cantor:
The first step to fixing this problem is to pass a budget that reduces spending. The House has done so, and will again. The Democratic Senate has not passed a budget in almost four years, which is unfair to hardworking taxpayers who expect more from their representatives. That ends this year.
We must pay our bills and responsibly budget for our future. Next week, we will authorize a three month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget. Furthermore, if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, Members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay.
“Since taking the majority, House Republicans have done their job,” Ryan said in the statement. “We’ve passed a budget that promotes economic growth and gets spending under control. But for nearly four years, Senate Democrats have refused to pass a budget. Today’s agreement will hold the Senate accountable for this legal and moral failure. Just as April 15 is tax day for American families, it is budget day for Congress. Unless the Senate acts, there will be no consideration of a long-term debt-ceiling increase. I look forward to working with my colleagues—in both houses and in both parties—on this vital issue.”
So Democrats get three months to explain how a moderate tax hike on the rich, the elimination of a few deductions, and zero cuts to anything but defense will sustain the welfare state for decades to come. They’re not being asked to cut anything right now; no one’s demanding that they yank grandma’s Medicare benefits or Social Security check. All they have to do to keep things on track for another debt-ceiling hike in April is propose a plan of their own. If they can’t, I’ll be eager to hear Reid justify why not. His office issued a statement today assuring Republicans that he’ll be happy to consider a “clean” debt-ceiling hike; the White House said the same thing yesterday, but there’s no way either of them will block a debt-ceiling increase that’s conditioned on Democrats passing a budget afterward. Not even American media could spin that completely away for them. It’s one thing to risk default by refusing to agree to spending cuts, it’s another thing to risk default by refusing to agree to even think about how the budget might be balanced long-term. If Reid balks on this, call his bluff.
Just one question. If the point of this is to tie the debt ceiling not to spending cuts, which Obama can oppose on the merits, but to Democrats’ basic responsibility to pass a budget, which he really can’t, how does the GOP maintain that frame through the fights over the sequester and next year’s federal spending in March? If I’m Reid and I’m backed into the corner by a maneuver like this, I’d cave by passing some ridiculous budget, trust the media not to dwell too much on how ridiculous it is, and then turn immediately to pounding the table about how cruel and hateful and atrocious the cuts proposed in the Republican budget are. That would put the two sides back in relatively the same position they are now, with Democrats not even pretending to offer a credible alternative to the GOP’s proposal and focusing instead on turning the debt-ceiling standoff into a referendum on Republican spending ideas.
Update: Excellent. From Pelosi’s office:
“We need a clean debt ceiling increase and a bipartisan and balanced budget that protects Medicare and Social Security, invests in the future, and responsibly reduces the deficit.
“This proposal does not relieve the uncertainty faced by small businesses, the markets and the middle class. This is a gimmick unworthy of the challenges we face and the national debate we should be having. The message from the American people is clear: no games, no default.”
They will not, will not, be held accountable for proposing actual solutions to America’s fiscal crisis. Even with the full faith and credit of the country at stake.