Wednesday, July 27, 2011

To Be Decided By Gallup--The End Game on Debt Limits

The Last Couple of Plays in Regulation. Nobody really knows what's going to happen with the Debt-Limit Showdown. Talking Points Memo and Nate Silver think it's going to be settled before Aug. 2. Andrew Leonard of Salon thinks not. I'm with Leonard. My best guess is that Obama, the Democrats, and Congressional Republicans will NOT hammer out a compromise by the Aug. 2 deadline and that they won't come to agreement if they have another week either.

It looks to me like neither side can afford to compromise. There are two debt limit proposals out there now--one by Harry Reid which projects spending cuts of 2.7 trillion and the other by John Boehner which projects 1 trillion in cuts. Given that Boehner has already come to at least one agreement with Obama, it's likely that Reid and Boehner could come to some sort of compromise on spending if spending were the main issue.

But it's not.

The main problem is how to schedule the next debt limit vote. John Boehner is adamant about scheduling another debt limit vote in six months and making the Democrats go through the entire process again during the 2012 election campaign and Boehner is bringing up legislation to that effect today. The bill isn't all popular with Republicans because it doesn't fulfill all of the big ambitions that the GOP had for the debt limit debate. Republicans had hoped to either dramatically cut federal discretionary spending, get big cuts in Medicare and Social Security, or get a balanced budget amendment. Boehner's plan doesn't contain any of this and the only consolation that he's offering Republicans is to renew the whole depressing debate again in 2012 as a way to bog down the Obama administration and help the Republican presidential candidate.

But Senate Democrats aren't totally stupid. They're just as adamant about not putting the debt limit albatross around Obama's neck and all 51 Senate Democrats and two independents have already signed a letter indicating that they won't vote for the Boehner plan. Several Senate Republicans have expressed scepticism about the Boehner bill as well. So Boehner's bill isn't going anywhere in the Senate. But Harry Reid's legislation isn't going anywhere either. Reid's plan won't have the 60 votes needed to get through the Senate and doesn't offer anything to Republicans in the House.

In other words, none of the proposals have a snowball's chance of getting through the hell that is now the Congress of the United States.

And I don't think that there's going to be much room for compromise either.

The Republicans can't give in because of Paul Ryan's Medicare proposals. Right now, the Ryan proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system is an unpopular albatross around the neck of every Republican candidate in the country. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell initially tried to escape the Paul Ryan problem by demanding that the Democrats accept major cuts in Social Security and Medicare entitlement cuts as the price of getting any kind of debt limit agreement. But Obama trumped that when he proposed the poison pill of accepting entitlement cuts only if the GOP agreed to eliminate many of the tax loopholes for big business. Boehner found that proposal appealing, but was overruled by the Tea Party caucus.

At this point, the proposal to revisit the debt limit debate in early 2012 is the only weapon the Republicans have to counter "The Ryan Effect" and I don't think the Republicans believe they can afford to give it up.

That's why John Boehner will ultimately choose default over compromise on his proposals.

And it's not like the Democrats are going to cave either. Obama and Harry Reid don't want to piss away all the advantages that the Dems have been accumulating since the 2010 election debacle. They want the election focus to be on Republican over-reaching and they can't do that if there's another Debt Limit Showdown.

Even more important than that, the Democrats are determined not to be seen as weak. The biggest problem for Obama and the Congressional Democrats is that almost all of the important players in American politics see them as weak. Congressional Republicans, conservative activist groups, big business, and a lot of people in the Obama administration itself view the Dems as too eager to compromise. If the Democrats and Obama cave now, they'll no longer get the benefit of the doubt from their own constituencies.

Ultimately, the last two plays in regulation will likely be votes on the Boehner Plan and the Reid Plan in the Senate.

And both plans will fail.

Overtime. You know, it wouldn't be a bad idea if political overtime was decided by penalty kicks just like soccer. But overtime in the Debt Limit Showdown is going to be decided by the polls instead.

And it could be a long overtime.

That's because there's a decent chance that the public mood has to get really ugly and angry for either side to give in.

That's certainly the case for the Republicans. The polls already show that the public favors Obama's approach of balancing enhanced revenue with spending cuts. If the Republicans were going to respond to "public opinion" in this way, they would have already caved. Conservative Republicans are in an odd position. They see their majority in the House of Representatives and the debt limit debate as a big chance to push through a balanced budget amendment and eviscerate social security and medicare. That way, conservatives could lock in "conservative government" for generations even if conservative Republicans find it impossible to win elections in any but the reddest of red states. This is part of the reason why the Republicans are unlikely to cave unless the political environment turns against them completely.

Of course, that can happen.

The political environment could turn very toxic for the GOP if markets grind to a halt, federal checks stop going out, or Republican politicians and conservative talkers start committing a lot of "we don't care how much you're suffering" gaffes. The last big Republican initiated showdown was scuttled when Newt Gingrich started whining about having to sit in the back of a plane.

But I still think that House Republicans will be very reluctant to back down and might decide to defy public opinion even if it turns very strongly against them.

For the Democrats, backing down is still "weakness" and patience with Obama administration weakness is beginning to run out among the Democrats. The Obama administration is much more sensitive to public opinion than the Republicans, but it would take a big shift for the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats to cave.

Overtime for the Debt Limit Showdown could last awhile.

Maybe they should just do penalty kicks.

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