Politics

10.15.13

The Senate's (Hoped For) Cease-Fire

What the Senate is working on is not what I'd exactly call a deal. It's more like a temporary cessation of hostilities. Really: What good is a deal to keep the government open until mid-January, and to approve borrowing authority until February 7? In between now and then, we're supposed to believe that Congress and the administration are going to come to terms on all the big budget questions that we know they can't possibly come to terms on?

But before we get to all that, we have to consider two questions.

First, will Ted Cruz and/or Mike Lee let the deal move through the Senate quickly enough to avert default? The Senate will have to expedite its usual clock to do that, and that requires...dum da-dum...unanimous consent. Cruz was asked about yesterday and said, "We need to see what the details are." Great. There's our Senate. One man can totter the world economy.

Okay, let's assume for the moment that Cruz doesn't do that, and the negotiating senators nail down the final points of disagreement here, which they are apparently expected to do. Then the second question: Will the House vote for this?

There's going to be lots of sturm and even more drang, but I suppose when the smoke clears there will probably be pretty close to 200 Democratic votes for and plenty enough Republican votes to push it over the top (if all or almost all of the House's 200 Democrats vote aye, then only around 20 Republicans are needed). So, yes, the House probably will vote for it.

There will be internal machinations and recriminations that'll be fascinating to watch--whether there's any threat to Boehner's speakership, if, say, the House approves the Senate deal with a relatively small number of GOP votes. The Koch outfits and Club for Growth will immediately go out and try to find primary challengers to the apostates. And so on.

But the result won't be victory for the forces of reason. The cease-fire will plunge us right back into the same situation we've been in essentially for three years, with the clock ticking fast. The Democrats are going to start arguing that the sequester budget limits be done away with, because they're draconian. They will be right about that. But of they agreed to sequestration back in 2011, and Republicans will be quick to point out that the Democrats' own "clean" CR accepted funding at sequester levels. So I don't see today how the Democrats are going to win the argument that spending levels need to be higher.

What this is ultimately about is the same thing it's always been about: entitlements. Republicans want to take a bite out of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. And they want Obama to agree so they don't take the political hit. I say, as I've said before, that Obama should put on the table raising the cap on FICA taxes. It's now around $115,000 (that is, FICA taxes are taken out only of wages up to that level). All polling I've seen shows that majorities back raising that cap. Yes it's a tax increase on the upper-middle-class, which is always dangerous. But on 17 percent of earners make more than $115,000 (which must be why it polls well).

Obama could say "I'll go with you on chained CPI, but let's raise the FICA tax cap." He could talk about how Reagan and Tip O'Neill did something siilar. But the Republicans will oppose this, of course, and then they'll be the deal-killers. But yeah, it's all very dissatisfying.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. Let's get through the next two days first.