OK, now we’re even. Nah nah nah.
That may sound like a schoolyard taunt, but it also captures what is going down in Washington as the clock ticks inexorably toward a self-imposed crisis—a government default in three days.
Rather than muting the partisanship and hammering out a compromise so the wealthiest country on earth can keep paying its bills, the two sides seem farther apart than a week ago. It’s getting harder to envision an agreement by the midnight Tuesday deadline, but like an unsupervised schoolyard game, the players can always change the rules and stop the clock for a couple of days if a deal is at hand.
The House got its latest licks in on Saturday, voting down a debt measure sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, 246 to 173, in a nose-thumbing exercise by John Boehner’s Republican troops. The debate was marked by boos and catcalls. And yet there was no reason for the House to vote because Reid hasn’t even been able to get his bill through the Senate, where it remains stalled by a filibuster threat.
Then again, this may have been payback for the Senate’s move in voting down Boehner’s budget bill Friday night shortly after the House speaker had muscled it through his chamber.
“We need Republicans to work with us,” Reid said as the House vote was winding down. “But I haven’t heard anything from the Republican leaders ... We’ve done a lot that they wanted.”
Each legislative body has now demonstrated that it can blow up the other’s preferred alternative. What neither has shown is the ability to craft a bill that could actually gain enough support from both parties to break the gridlock.
Ladies and gentlemen, your democracy in action.
The result is that soldiers in Afghanistan told Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Saturday that they’re worried about getting paid. The stock markets, after six straight losing sessions, are getting rattled. China’s state-run news agency is lecturing the U.S. for “irresponsible” behavior.
The working assumption until this weekend has been that this was typical Beltway gamesmanship and that the two sides would agree to a last-minute deal because the alternative was unthinkable. Now that’s far from certain. The sheer mechanics of getting complex legislation through both chambers, a House-Senate conference committee and to the president’s desk mean that time is running exceedingly short.
Reid had envisioned his measure as a last-train-leaving-the-station compromise—and to be sure, it goes a considerable distance toward meeting Republican demands. The bill would reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion—or slightly less, depending on budgetary assumptions—without raising taxes. Three months ago, that would have been seen as a total capitulation to the GOP. Even such conservative stalwarts as the Wall Street Journal editorial page are urging the Republicans to declare victory and make a deal. So what exactly are they fighting over?
Reid’s budget-cutting sword would fall twice, slicing $1.2 trillion in spending each time. But rather than relying on an unpleasant “trigger” to push Congress to raise the debt limit a second time, Reid borrows a technique from his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell. The Nevada Democrat would largely give President Obama unilateral power to boost the debt ceiling. Congress could block the move only by passing a resolution of disapproval. The Boehner bill, by contrast, would force a second vote on the debt limit during the 2012 campaign.
If the Senate operated by majority rule, the Reid measure would already have passed. But the Democrats need to get 60 votes to avoid having the bill talked to death, and McConnell has sent Reid a letter with 43 of the chamber’s 47 Republicans vowing to vote no. (The exceptions are Scott Brown, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe.)
Everyone knows Washington is a laughingstock right now. Many lawmakers, including the leaders of both parties, want desperately to resolve the crisis before a default rocks the fragile economy. But the two sides are dug into their respective trenches, with Boehner squeezed by his hell-no Tea Party faction and Reid limited by the Senate’s sclerotic rules. Obama, who according to the polls has public opinion on his side, has seemingly been unable to move any votes, asking the public instead to email and tweet its displeasure.
In the end, some ugly compromise will be reached, though it may come after significant damage has been done to the economy. But that will pale compared to the damaged reputations of members of Congress who, even at this late hour, seem more interested in scoring political points than in legislating.