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October 20, 2014

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The Policy Racket

The challenge: Secure enough ‘yes’ votes

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks during a news conference on debt ceiling legislation on Capitol Hill on Saturday, July 30, 2011, in Washington. The GOP-controlled House rejected Reid’s debt-ceiling proposal in a largely symbolic vote.

By midday, each of Nevada’s four lawmakers will have been briefed, separately, in their respective houses and party conferences about the details of the compromise deal on the debt ceiling.

The party chiefs have about a day and a half left to sell the plan to enough members of Congress that the country doesn’t default, and not everyone is expected to sign on the bottom line.

The liberal Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the ultraconservative Tea Party-aligned Republicans have said they think it’s a bad deal.

Thus the final and steepest challenge, in this most acrimoniously partisan of Congresses, will be to pitch the deal to an ever-shrinking center and hope enough lawmakers are too afraid of the national consequences if they go it alone.

The deal the White House hopes they take is a more contorted than any of the earlier options.

It gives President Barack Obama $2.4 trillion in borrowing authority, enough to take the country through March of 2013. But it’s broken up into several stages, each of which requires Congress and/or the White House to jump through hoops to keep the process going.

The initial debt limit lift of $900 billion will come through about $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts. For the first two years, that cut will be about $10 billion with cuts equally weighted between security and nonsecurity programs. Past that, cuts in nonsecurity programs are deeper, year to year, than cuts in security and defense programs for the duration of the 10 years over which the cuts are to take effect. The possible reason for that strategy: The White House didn’t include the expected drawdown from the waning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in its final accounting.

But even that opening authority is broken up into pieces. Obama gets just $400 billion in borrowing authority upfront; to get the next $500 billion, he has to put the request to Congress, which will issue a disapproval resolution and the president will have to veto — and then he can raise the country’s borrowing authority.

The procedure is a straight import from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to give the president borrowing authority, but only if Republicans had the chance to register, repeatedly, their approval that he’d be borrowing that money. Republicans also secured a Congress-wide vote on a constitutional balanced budget amendment under this plan; though it doesn’t have to (and isn’t expected to) pass.

Then there’s the matter of the joint committee. The leaders of the House and Senate will each appoint three representatives to a 12-member committee of lawmakers to hash through the budget and come up with another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in savings. The group will have a mandate to examine anything and everything, from every last dollar of federal spending to every inch of the tax code.

Their proposal is due by Thanksgiving, and Congress will have to pass it by the end of December. If they can pass it, the debt limit will be raised, dollar for dollar. (Lawmakers would retain the right to issue another McConnell-style resolution of disapproval if they do; and the president would summarily veto it.)

If Congress rejects the joint committee’s proposal, it sets off across-the-board cuts, in a process known as sequestration.

The idea behind sequestration is that the automatic cuts in it are much worse than the alternative — thus compelling Congress to act.

But the way the deal worked out, the programs Democrats have been trying to protect might actually fare better under sequestration than they would under a deficit reduction plan — if that plan ends up looking anything like some of the Republican proposals that have been put forward so far.

About half of the across-the-board cuts come from defense and security-related spending, with the other half coming from a variety of spending programs, including Pell grants and Medicare payments to provider hospitals and doctors. But Medicare payments to the elderly aren’t touched, and neither is Social Security; programs for the poor like Medicaid, food stamps and veterans’ benefits are also spared any potential chops.

“This is the first time in about two decades that Republican leadership has been will to agree to firewalls in security spending,” Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said today, describing the content of the across-the-board trigger.

But commercials have started railing on lawmakers for the proposed cuts in social spending.

“We’re telling all our friends and neighbors,” begins a commercial by the group Americans for Health Care, featuring three senior citizens complaining about the Medicare provider cuts.

“Why do you want to cut over a hundred billion dollars from Medicare and Medicaid for hospital care?” a woman asks, followed by a man asking: “What were you thinking?”

What they were thinking, or are hoping, is that the deal pulls enough votes this evening, when the bill comes before the House and Senate, to clear the hurdle and avoid a default, and that in the slightly longer-term, it’s enough to push Congress to craft a so-called “big deal” that Obama has been calling for since the beginning.

Democrats are confident that it’s in the joint commission stage of the process that they’ll clinch the deal Obama was so close to striking with House Speaker John Boehner: a plan to balance any more cuts with revenue by letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire.

“Fifteen to 16 Senate Republicans have signed onto the Gang of Six concept that calls for more revenues,” Sperling said.

But as Democrats push that line to their members, Republicans are selling the plan to their members by saying the deal, as structured, makes it impossible to raise revenue in the future because it’s tied to projections on spending rooted in the now, and those tax cuts stay in place through the end of 2012.

The White House has been urging Republicans to deal with the tax issue through the committee process, even though it’s a year earlier than the tax regime expires, on the rationale that it’s better to do things through an unrushed, orderly process.

But as this crisis has made clear, little in Washington happens without the threat of deadline, and that goes double in a big election year.

Some lawmakers are deriding the joint committee’s authority, calling it a “super congress” that has no business making decisions for the whole body.

Those people, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today, have no business being a part of the process that has to happen between now and Thanksgiving.

“I just think we have to have people with eyes wide open, wiling to make difficult choices,” Reid said. “Many people in Nevada and around the country are struggling for the essential, and that is a job. We need to move to a job agenda as quickly as possible.”

When asked if the country needed to also pursue deficit reduction, he answered with uncharacteristic forcefulness: “Not only yes, but hell yes.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the compromise after the House, which takes up the bill tonight.

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