Debt-Ceiling Deal: The GOP Gets Its Way

As reports of a possible deal leaked out late Saturday night, it appears that Obama is meeting the Republicans—on their terms. Michael Tomasky on what to watch for today.

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Lots of smoke Saturday. Let’s cut right through it: In a phrase, President Obama appears to have cut a deal with the Republicans, on their terms, or about 98 percent of them. Democratic congressional leaders are trying to push back but are up against it, with Harry Reid having pushed the cloture vote on his plan back from 1 a.m. Sunday to 12 hours later as he scrambles to try to find the votes to pass his version of a compromise. Jonathan Karl of ABC News was the first to report the Obama-GOP deal as fact in this short piece that was posted at 10:39 p.m. Saturday night. If he’s right—and it smells like he is—it’s a bleak day for this presidency, and really in American history, as we’ve now embarked on a path that’s very likely to lead to huge cuts in entitlement programs, the domestic budget, and more or less everything every Democrat in Washington (except, apparently, one) wakes up to fight for every day.

If you followed yesterday’s events hour-by-hour and have a little experience at negotiation yourself, you saw the signs as clear as day. When Mitch McConnell said—around 4 Saturday afternoon—that he had been talking with Obama and Joe Biden and the country will not default, he was really saying: We’ve cut the deal. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were at the White House at the time, with Obama. Were the three of them—or the four of them, with Biden—figuring out their next counter-move, as one might expect? Maybe. But it appears more likely that Reid and Pelosi were getting their marching orders and being read the terms of surrender.

When Reid took to the Senate floor around an hour later to say that McConnell was wrong and a deal was not forthcoming, he was refusing to march. He gamely tried to say that the basis for a deal could still emerge from the Senate. It still could, in theory. If somehow he finds 60 votes to advance his compromise bill, he will suddenly have the upper hand. We’ll find out today.

But everything about their postures and inflections suggested that McConnell knew the deal was done, and Reid felt sideswiped by the White House. McConnell’s letter with the signatures of 43 Senate Republicans saying they wouldn’t support the deal, released earlier Saturday afternoon, was the key move. Until then, Democratic insiders had had the sense that McConnell was going to play ball with Reid and agree to a plan that would pass in the Senate with real bipartisan support, putting pressure on John Boehner to ditch his Tea Party faction and pass a deal with Democrats and more mainstream Republicans. But once that letter became public, it was clear that in the age-old body vs. party dispute—that is, would senators hang together against the House, even if it meant dinging their own party, because that’s what ostensibly more “thoughtful” senators do—McConnell, the man whose chief goal for the country is that Obama be a one-term president, was going with party all the way.

What to watch for today? First, if somehow Reid gets 60 votes, it’s a new ballgame. Maybe. Second, listen closely for the tone of Senate and House Democrats’ statements. Will they be mad enough to revolt against their president when the final roll is called? Most probably won’t, but one has little doubt that they want to.

Reid said a very interesting thing in his late afternoon floor statement. There have been 72 debt-ceiling votes since 1962, he said, and never before had one been threatened by a filibuster (which requires that the majority find 60 votes) until Saturday. Both parties engaged in the usual posturing but had always agreed that a simple majority could raise the ceiling. Until Saturday. This tells us just what extremists these Republicans are. But McConnell knew he could get away with it, because few Americans even know what cloture is—and, more important, because he predicted, apparently accurately, that this president would roll over. And so the GOP will have won, and won big. Obama can call this victory if he likes, and insofar as default will be avoided, sure. But if he thinks this is what his voters sent him to the White House to do, he needs a serious reality check.