House to raise debt ceiling on time rather than value

Yesterday, Eric Cantor told CBS News that voters want Congress and the White House to start solving problems.  House Republicans will make an offer to open a window for that purpose. In a kind of side-step around the debt-ceiling issue, the GOP will pass a bill that will suspend rather than raise the debt ceiling for a short period of time — and press Senate Democrats to produce a budget before the window closes.  They are now confident in their ability to pass this proposal within the GOP majority, at least:

The fact that House GOP leaders have scheduled a vote on the controversial bill in less than a week since the idea surfaced signifies that they have an unusual amount of confidence in their 233 members. That’s despite the fact that Republicans have hardly been able to pass a single piece of important legislation without Democratic support.

GOP leaders feel confident they will be able to pass the bill, which suspends the debt ceiling until May 19, while trying to force the Senate to pass its budget. The legislation doesn’t specify the amount by which the debt ceiling will be raised, a tactic that might be aimed at shielding lawmakers from the criticism that they’re accruing billions of dollars in new debt.

The bill also attempts to force both chambers to pass a budget by April 15. If they don’t, members of Congress will not be paid.

The measure — a mere 4½ pages long — is an attempt to sweep away the debt ceiling as a legislative issue until Washington resolves two other thorny problems: government funding and automatic spending cuts dubbed the sequester.

The goal, according to lawmakers, is to use the three months after the debt ceiling is lifted to tangle over long-term fiscal policy with the Senate and the White House. But it’s unclear whether President Barack Obama would ever agree to a short-term debt ceiling hike, something he has previously fiercely opposed.

Well, the GOP probably isn’t terribly concerned about a presidential veto.  If the Senate passes the suspension, then Obama will be isolated in opposition, and the resultant “default” will be blamed on him.  If Democrats don’t pass it, the blame falls to Harry Reid.  Bear in mind, too, that Obama has issued very few vetoes, which comes from the fact that his Senate has blocked nearly everything that he might dislike.  If it passes the Senate, it will get the autopen treatment, plus a couple of signing statements, but it will get signed nonetheless.

There is still some risk in this political maneuver. Democrats have demanded that Republicanspermanently suspend the debt ceiling as a drive of artificial crises.  Never mind that some Democrats in the current Senate voted against debt-ceiling increases during the Bush years (as well as then-Senator Barack Obama), and threatened to do so in 2009 over a legislative fight.  They will float this demand again, arguing that Congress sets the spending levels and Treasury should be automatically authorized to borrow funds to meet them — but that’s an argument that works only when normal-order budget processes are followed, and doesn’t address the rapidly-increasing problem of mandatory spending that is outside of budget-process control.  By offering a temporary suspension rather than a hard-limit raise to take us to the middle of May, Republicans will offer more legitimacy for that demand — and so they’d better get a budget with some entitlement reforms out of the bid.

Will it work?  In my column today for The Week, I argue that it at least offers an opening to Democrats to find some middle ground that benefits both parties and the country:

On the other hand, there have been some recent signs that both sides want to get some of these long-running debates off the table.  Republicans want a normal-order budget with real spending cuts, and preferably some significant start to entitlement reform. Democrats want more revenue, despite winning the fight on the high-earner tax rates, to cushion the blow on entitlement reform.  There is room to have both parties succeed in their goals and still make progress on greatly reducing deficit spending and unfunded liabilities for entitlement programs, two of the greatest long-term threats to American prosperity. …

Democrats want to pass comprehensive tax reform to increase revenues, for which they need normal-order budgeting, for political if not parliamentary reasons. Republicans have an interest in reforming the tax code as well: Broadening the tax base and removing the distortions that come from social engineering in the tax code. With revenue increases from a broadened tax base that will result from real tax-code reform, Democrats should be able to marry that to entitlement reforms that at least begin to reduce the juggernaut of future unfunded liabilities for the federal government. That would produce enough mutual benefit to find a middle ground for both parties that can easily be projected in principle from almost any vantage point on the political spectrum.

This will only happen when both sides see short-term political advantage in consolidating some gains and backing off of all-or-nothing demands, through cooperation and normal order, over obstructionism and brinksmanship. Republicans, who had hoped to have increased leverage after the November elections, appear to have seen the reality of having control of only one lever of power in Washington (the House) while Democrats have the other two (the Senate and White House), and have accordingly adjusted their approach. Will Democrats adjust theirs now that they realize they can’t dictate outcomes either, and return to the normal-order budgeting needed to end the Age of Cliffs? That is the question, and it remains to be seen whether Cantor’s optimism is an artifact of a sunny day or the acknowledgment of a changed Washington.

So far, I’m leaning toward the “sunny day” conclusion, but this might be the first real sign of actual progress in the last two years for responsible budgeting.  Let’s hope it pans out.

Update: Well, this is interesting.  Via e-mail from the fiscal-conservative Club for Growth:

“The Club for Growth will not oppose tomorrow’s vote on the debt ceiling,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “The Club for Growth will, on the other hand, strongly oppose any efforts during the upcoming debate over the continuing resolution and sequester that fail to arrest out-of-control spending and put sensible limits on the growth of government.”

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David Strom 3:21 PM on March 24, 2023