House Republicans are moving forward today with their staged vote on a “clean” debt limit increase, which is designed not to pass, in order to show that there’s no support for increasing the limit without major spending cuts. Greg has a good item this morning offering one interpretation of the state of play: Because Republicans threatened to hold their breath until they — and the nation — turned blue, they’ve won a victory in the sense that Dems have agreed to exchange spending cuts for a debt ceiling hike that everyone already agreed was inevitable.
I don’t think it’s clear yet, however, who’s winning the larger war.
There are three likely outcomes to the debt limit showdown, assuming there’s going to eventually be a deal, which is all but certain at this point. One is a clear victory for Republicans: cuts to Medicare benefits and, even more likely, Medicaid; cuts to other liberal-supported programs; further tax cuts. That may or may not wind up reducing the deficit, but it would match conservative priorities, and be a massive defeat for core liberal priorities.
But that isn’t really the most likely outcome. The second possibility, and in my view somewhat more likely, would be some sort of real deficit-reducing deal in which both sides get some cuts and revenues that they want. Republicans would get cuts in things like food stamps and infrastructure spending. Democrats would get cuts in things like defense and farm programs, and would succeed in defending Medicare benefits, instead getting the Medicare cost-control provisions they prefer. It’s possible that both sides could “win” by getting enough of their priorities in place to each declare victory.
The third possibility? Gimmicks and phony “cuts” that everyone can claim reduce the deficit, but actually do little. For example: Back-loaded cuts in discretionary spending that depend on actions by future Congresses that may never materialize.
If I had to place a bet I’d probably go with the third option. They’ll make a deal that’s heavy on future cuts and some sort of budget gimmick to “force” future Congresses to follow through, but there won’t be much in the way of actual real deficit reduction now: No new revenues of any significance; no additional tax cuts; and no statutory changes in entitlements that would amount to real cuts in that area.
Are options two and three really wins for Republicans? Unclear. Remember, the Republican priorities are lower taxes and lower spending on government programs that Democratic constituencies like. Depending on the details, it’s not even clear that options two or three would give Republicans those things. Meanwhile, Dems could still walk away with a deal that protects programs that matter to their constituencies, while achieving their goal of long-term deficit reduction, which also would allow them to claim fiscal responsibility in the 2012 election cycle. In other words, Democrats could still wind up “winning.”