Yesterday’s Perils of Pauline episode ended with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) receiving word that, unlike what was done for both Democrats and Republicans in months of negotiations, the Congressional Budget Office would score the debt plans using the March 2011, not the January 2011, baseline. (For all the pro-ObamaCare folks who worship at the altar of CBO, take note that CBO reality isn’t the only one to choose from.)
Boehner wasn’t playing games to give the conservatives less of what they want. And there really wasn’t a huge goof here. And if you don’t believe me, Jack Lew, the OMB director, stepped in last night to bolster Boehner. (More on his motives below.) Lew is correct when he says:
Indeed, throughout our weeks of talks, all parties have worked off a January baseline because we all recognized that we needed to start from the same place.
That is why it would be confusing to judge the current proposal’s savings from the “adjusted March 2011 baseline” which CBO released in May. Conveniently, CBO notes the January baseline numbers in its analysis, and pegs the savings from the Boehner plan at $1.1 trillion. Furthermore, an additional adjustment was also assumed in the talks for the projected costs of Pell Grants under a special Congressional rule. That adjustment brings the savings up to $1.2 trillion.
But this now gives Boehner the opportunity to go back and improve (make more acceptable to Republicans in the House) his bill. Yuval Levin writes:
He has another chance here to design the bill in a way that addresses some of the concerns that House conservatives have raised today — that is, in a way that relies less on back-loaded caps, and that more generally just has effectively deeper caps but on its face is the same bill at the same levels that congressional leaders informally agreed to over the weekend. The same structure and the same level of cuts, but using the later baseline, gives him a chance to produce a stronger bill but one that should have no less of a chance of shaping the Senate debate and the ultimate outcome if it passes the House.
Boehner is right to use the opportunity to re-write the bill, and hopefully his team will re-write it along these lines.
And now it becomes clear why Lew came racing forward to say, “No, no — it’s fine as is.” You see, once Boehner “fixes” it, the bill becomes even more distasteful to the White House for the very reasons Levin says it will please conservatives.
Then there is also the matter of the Reid bill. Levin observes, “Democrats have just realized that the Reid bill, which the White House is backing, has made the same mistake, so that Reid’s cuts would also be scored as lower than its authors claim by CBO (probably at exactly the same level as the original Boehner bill).” Boehner will fix his bill and therefore make Sen. Harry Reid’s “a much weaker player in all this unless he also makes deeper cuts, which the Democrats are obviously not inclined to do.”
Reid’s bill didn’t have 60 (perhaps not even 50) votes before this snafu, and with this revelation there will likely be a few more defections. After that all becomes apparent, Boehner’s bill, if it gets through the House, will be the only attainable vehicle to prevent default. The Senate will agree, and President Obama will need to sign it. (How the White House will spin this will be fascinating to watch.)
But what about those House and Senate Republicans threatening to vote no? I heartily share the views of the Wall Street Journal editorial board:
The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . Barack Obama. The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor.
This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell into GOP Senate nominees. The reality is that the debt limit will be raised one way or another, and the only issue now is with how much fiscal reform and what political fallout.
That said, the Democrats should have to produce some votes to pass this thing. The president and Democratic Senate utterly failed to live up to their responsibilities to devise their own concrete plans that could be scored, until Reid came up with something the president apparently doesn’t like (no taxes, you see) and which has more flaws than the alternative. Shouldn’t then the Democrats, in order to avoid the default they have rightly been fearmongering about, do their duty and sign what is available?
To sum up, the White House rides to the rescue (sort of) of a plan the president (sort of) threatened to veto so that the Senate Democrats’ plan that has no chance of passing either house won’t look so bad. (Have you noticed that the president’s speech on Monday is of zero relevance here?) And then, . . . .and then what, Mr. Lew? This is always the problem with the White House: They speechify, bluster and insult, but they never have the “Obama solution.” That is because he doesn’t have solutions. He has tactics. Unfortunately, tactics are not going to get us past Aug. 2.