Rep. Paul Ryan, the House GOP’s budgetary chieftain, gave a brief but remarkable interview to the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker in which he essentially conceded that Republicans will only negotiate with Democrats over the budget if they can hold the U.S. economy hostage to increase their leverage.
Ryan didn’t say that explicitly, of course, but once you cut through all the familiar Ryan gibberish, that’s his plain meaning. In the interview, Ryan discusses the fact that Republicans don’t want to enter into conference negotiations over the budget (even though they had previously insisted on “regular order” for a long time). Instead, Ryan wants a pre-conference agreement before regular conference negotiations. He gives a bunch of procedural reasons for this, such as the fact that if conference negotiations fail, the House minority has the authority to force Republicans to take uncomfortable votes (on so called “motions to instruct”). But this is the meat of it:
Ryan said his primary objective is to prevent a divisive partisan battle that would consume Congress throughout the summer and make it harder for House Republicans and Senate Democrats to reach a budget compromise. The congressman also worries that a protracted budget fight would poison the legislative process and spill into negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, which the Congress must do this fall when the U.S. is expected to reach its borrowing limit.
“The moves I’m making, and the decisions I’m making, are to try and maximize the chance of success in the fall,” Ryan said Thursday during a brief interview with The Washington Examiner. “If we go to conference and it’s a stalemate and we have all these motions to instruct and all of this partisan fighting after 20 days, then we’ll grow farther apart and we’ll make it harder to get an agreement, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
This is deeply convoluted. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to enter into negotiations with Dems now, well in advance of the showdown over the debt ceiling that’s coming this fall, because Dems and Republicans are unlikely to enter into any agreement, and all the bad blood that engenders will complicate later negotiations over the debt ceiling. On the other hand, he wants to wait until the fall to enter into discussions, which is to say, he wants to wait…until the confrontation over the debt ceiling is upon us. Doing this would “maximize the chance of success,” which is to say, it would maximize the chances of reaching a budget deal that also averts the debt ceiling crisis. This would seem to mean that all of this must be done at once — meaning the debt limit battle will, inevitably, have to be part of the budget talks later.
The simple fact of the matter here is that Republicans are not willing to enter into negotiations over the budget unless they can use the threat of crashing the economy to get more of what they want. To this apparent end, conservative Senators such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have insisted that Dems agree in advance of any budget talks not to make the debt limit any part of them — a position supported by Mitch McConnell. But as Jonathan Chait noted recently, Democrats can’t do this; it would mean “they couldn’t strike any deal because Republicans would come back in the fall demanding more concessions in return for not blowing up the world economy.”
The move by Senate conservatives to impose preconditions on any budget talks has been denounced by John McCain and other Republicans, because it would effectively make normal governing impossible. The disagreement has resulted in a divide among Republicans.
But this divide can’t be resolved, because Republicans won’t enter into normal talks; after all, this would either force them to compromise in budget talks or reveal clearly that they are not willing to compromise in budget talks. And as Ryan himself tacitly admits, Republicans won’t be able to compromise in the course of normal negotiations. At the same time, it’s politically problematic to openly admit they are only willing to enter into negotiations in which they can avail themselves of the threat of something as destructive as default to maximize their leverage. So Ryan is forced into the above contortions to explain the Republicans’ strategy — or, more accurately, their lack of any coherent strategy.