When last we left the proceedings, the Boehner bill had squeaked by in the House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ( D-Nev.) then promptly moved to table it. And with the assistance of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other Senate conservative hard-liners, it was relegated to the dustbin by a 59-41 vote. Understand what happened: House Speaker John Boehner moved heaven and earth to accommodate the extreme right in both the House and Senate and his reward was 22 “no” votes from hard-line House members. DeMint (who helped sink the original Boehner debt-ceiling bill) along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and David Vitter (R-La.) voted with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to kill Boehner’s handiwork in a matter of hours.
As of this posting, Reid and the White House are trying to figure out, finally, what could get through the House.
There are two lessons here. Boehner in the future should not accommodate the most extreme right-wingers in his caucus. It doesn’t help to modify his positions since they will never play ball. Second, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), DeMint and their troops are entirely out of the action, and they have demonstrated that, when it comes down to it, they can’t move either body. If you want to have leverage you eventually have to be willing to say “yes.” I will say this: Notice how few senators joined with DeMint on this one. He didn’t drag with him, for example, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who had previously signed the pledge not to back any bill without passage of the balanced budget amendment. If the upshot of all this would be to weaken the hand of the obstructionists, Boehner’s effort would not have been in vain.
After that Reid tweaked his own bill slightly, as Reuters summarized:
●Democrats had hoped to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion, enough to cover the country’s borrowing needs through the November 2012 elections. The new plan would accomplish that in three stages, rather than all at once.
●President Barack Obama would be authorized to raise the debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion — $416 billion at once to cover borrowing through September, and $784 billion after that.
●Congress could vote against the second debt-limit increase, and Obama would veto that vote, sending it back to Congress. At that point, the increase would take effect unless Congress mustered a two-thirds vote to override the veto. Presumably, Democrats would prevent that from happening.
●Obama could enact a second $1.2 trillion debt-limit increase once the Treasury department got within $150 billion of the current limit. The same process would ensue.
●The bill also includes $2.2 trillion in spending cuts.
●Would not raise taxes or change major benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare.
●Would set up a joint committee to find additional savings in areas like health benefits and the tax code. The committee’s findings would get an up-or-down vote in Congress by the end of the year.
●Would cut $752 billion from discretionary programs over 10 years.
●Envisions a discretionary level of $1.045 trillion for the coming fiscal year, $4 billion less than current levels.
●Caps military and security spending for the coming two fiscal years. Republicans have generally resisted cuts to military spending.
●Would count an anticipated $1.044 trillion reduction in war spending as savings. Many Republicans have derided that as “smoke and mirrors” accounting because war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to decrease anyway.
●Would count $376 billion in savings from reduced interest payments
●Would save $11 billion from reduced crop subsidies
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gathered up a total of 43 Republicans (missing were Sens. Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) to sign a letter saying they would oppose the Reid bill. (A senior Senate adviser cautioned, “It doesn’t mean one or more won’t vote with us, but they didn’t get on the letter.”)
Then — and you could have seen this one coming a mile away — the House voted down Reid’s bill by a 246-173 (including 11 Democrats) margin. The House killed the Reid bill, and the Senate killed the Boehner bill. The House then adjourned.
So now, finally, Reid and the president are left to put something on the table that both houses can approve. As a House leadership aide put it, “Having demonstrated today that the Reid bill cannot pass in either chamber, and having crafted a bipartisan framework with the bipartisan Senate leadership that the White House rejected, Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner are waiting along with the rest of America for Washington Democrats to tell the nation their plan.” And indeed, Reid was summoned to the White House.
What could the plan be? It can’t be too far from the original Boehner bill (sorry, the balanced budget amendment is dead), but Obama needs to make sure there is no default crisis when it is time for the second round of cuts in Boehner’s bill. So the search is now on for a trigger or a penalty of some sort. For example, if the commission doesn’t come up with $1.8 billion in cuts there could be an automatic sequestration. In that way we would not have a second default showdown. And more important, Republicans could be guaranteed trillions in cuts.
As for the timing, a Senate rules guru tells me that once there’s a deal between Reid and McConnell with Obama’s blessing the Senate can set a cloture vote and likely get consent to move up the vote. But we are not there yet. Far from it.