Senate Nears Deal That Kicks The Can Down The Road, Accomplishes Little Else
With under 48 hours left before the United States hits the Treasury Department’s deadline on the debt ceiling, and the government shutdown entering its 15th day (thus making it third longest such shutdown since 1976), it has become apparent that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will be presenting the Senate with a deal that accomplishes little more than reopen potential disaster and get the government back normal operating function:
WASHINGTON — Senate leaders neared the completion Monday night of a bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown while the rest of the world braced for the possibility of an American default that could set off a global financial disaster.
Negotiators talked into the evening as senators from both parties coalesced around a plan that would lift the debt limit through Feb. 7, pass a resolution to finance the government through Jan. 15 and conclude formal discussions on a long-term tax and spending plan no later than Dec. 13, according to one Senate aide briefed on the plan.
But while both Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, praised the progress that was made in the Senate, it was already clear that the most conservative members of the House were not going to go along quietly with a plan that does not accomplish their goal from the outset of this two-week-old crisis: dismantling the president’s health care law.
“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”
There have been other showdowns between Republican lawmakers and President Obama that went to the last minute; in 2011, lawmakers reached a deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling two days before officials said a default was possible, resulting in a stock market plunge and the downgrading of the nation’s credit rating. But the real possibility that as of Thursday the government would not be able to meet its obligations prompted grim warnings of an economic catastrophe that could ripple through stock markets, foreign capitals, corporate boardrooms, state budget offices and the bank accounts of everyday investors.
Officials at the White House and the Treasury have said that contingency plans are in place, though they have repeatedly declined to provide details about which obligations would be met and which would be abandoned. Market participants said such plans would most likely include a plan to shore up short-term funding markets that rely on government debt.
As they drafted their deal, Senate negotiators in both parties were hoping that House Republican leaders would have no choice but to let a bipartisan agreement come to a vote, even if it could pass only with votes from Democrats and a minority of the Republican majority. But John A. Boehner, the House speaker, provided no assurances on Monday that an arrangement hammered out by his Senate colleagues could pass muster among his conservatives.
Senate Republicans had pushed for an agreement that included a provision to delay or repeal a tax on medical devices, but that became a sticking point in the negotiations and will almost certainly be excluded from the final deal, Senate aides said. But the deal is likely to include a one-year delay of another tax associated with the Affordable Care Act known as the reinsurance tax, which employers pay.
Another Republican-backed measure likely to be in the deal would require tighter income verification standards for people who receive subsidies under the new health care law. Under the new guidelines, the Health and Human Services secretary would have to certify that the department can verify income eligibility. The two provisions are the only mentions of the health care law whose defunding has been at the core of Republican demands over the past two weeks.
David Graham summarizes the deal like this:
- The government is funded through January 15.
- The debt ceiling is raised through February 7.
- There are two minor changes to Obamacare: There will be stronger verification of incomes for those applying for insurance subsidies, a Republican wish; and a reinsurance fee in the law will be delayed for one year, a Democratic desire.
- A bipartisan conference committee on the budget is supposed to finish formal negotiations on a long-term plan to fund the government and reform the tax code by mid-December, with the goal of replacing further planned cuts from sequestration.
The deal is the product of talks between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been the enforcer of Democratic Party unity throughout the crisis, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had appeared to be mostly on the sidelines.
Is this deal good for the country? It depends what you mean. Assuming the plan succeeds, it’s certainly preferable to shutdown and default, but it looks a lot like another punt by Congress, pushing the issues just a little bit down the road. How optimistic are you about a bipartisan, bicameral budget committee’s chances, given the Supercommittee’s showing? How excited are you for another shutdown in January? Or another debt-ceiling crisis in February?
Graham is right, of course. This isn’t a plan that actually solves any problems, certainly not any of the underlying fiscal issues that this country has to deal with sooner rather than later. Rather than fully funding the government as the Federal budget laws require to have been done by September 30th, it only funds the government or another three month. For the third time in just over a year, it pushes the debt ceiling out just long enough for us to be able to say that there is no imminent default/cash flow crisis, at least not for the time being. Much to the chagrin of the conservatives whose doomed and, in the end idiotic, strategy of trying to take down the PPACA via the budget process, it does nothing significant to Obamacare, not even the repeal of the bipatrisan-ly reviled medical device tax. And, to top it all off, we get yet another “supercommittee” that will spend the time between now and the end of the year meeting to come up with yet another “Grand Bargain” that will solve all of our problems. In 2010, it was called Bowles-Simpson, in 2011 it was the Budget Control Act’s “supercommittee.” Bowles-Simpson saw its recommendations tossed into the garbage can. The BCA “supercommittee” failed miserably. No doubt, we’ll hear people tell us that, this time, things will be different and they’ll be able to come up with an agreement, but only a Pollyanna would believe that the more likely outcome is that we’ll be dealing with this same crisis all over again when January and February roll around.
Before we get there, though, this deal has to pass two chambers of Congress, and that’s what’s going to make the next 48 hours or so a very interesting and bumpy ride to say the least.
As was the case with the “clean” CR, passage in the Senate seems far more likely than the House to pass this deal, the question in that chamber is going to be how long its going to take to get it done. Last night, Senator Ted Cruz refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether he would attempt to delay or block a Senate bill that didn’t touch Obamacare, and he was seen meeting at a Capitol Hill hangout called Tortilla Coast with a group of Tea Party House conservatives. Under regular Senate rules, Cruz could slow down the process of passage significantly by objecting to a unanimous consent request, thus requiring Reid (and McConnell) to go through the normal debate procedure that would mean that a final vote would be unlikely before sometime early on Friday. Alternatively, though, Reid could chose to use this vote as an opportunity to test the new procedures put in place earlier this year as a means of limiting filibusters on important legislation, although that road also carries risks with it:
Back in January, the Senate set up a new procedure for the 113th Congress that would allow Majority Leader Harry Reid to truncate the process of limiting debate on legislative business.
The Nevada Democrat has yet to deploy it though, because it could create new unpredictability for both Reid and his GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
In short, the resolution created a way around the usual process which forces the Senate to spend days on breaking a filibuster of a motion to proceed. But it also requires Reid allows each party to offer two amendments. The agreement came about as part of the deal to avoid use of the “nuclear option” to change the Senate’s rules with a simple majority vote. As summarized by CQ Roll Call in January:
Eliminates the right to filibuster a motion to proceed if the majority leader permits up to four amendment votes.
If the majority leader wants to bring up a bill, he can get a vote to do so four hours after he files a motion to proceed.
At least two amendments from the majority and two from the minority must be allowed.
If one of the first four amendments isn’t germane to the bill, it will be subject to a 60-vote threshold for passage.
How exactly the amendment opportunities get allocated under the process is a bit of an open question. However, Reid could no doubt line up an amendment vote on the agreement he hammers out with McConnell.
That might move the process along more quickly, since Reid could take a House measure that’s sitting on the calendar containing revenue language and move it through the chamber more quickly.
One complicating factor here would be deciding what Amendments get voted on and how that impacts how quickly matters move through the Senate, but it would allow Reid to bypass the problems that could arise if Cruz and others in the Senate decided to try to slow the process down or, although it would be unlikely to succeed, to block the legislation altogether. Essentially, though, if Reid and McConnell come out today with a deal that they both endorsed, then the bill will pass the Senate, the only question is how long it will take.
The House of Representatives, though, is another matter.
First there’s the matter of whether or not the House would accept the Senate deal as-is, or whether they’d demand changes which would slow the passage process down. NRO’s Robert Costa reports this morning that the House GOP seems more likely to ask for changes rather than accept the Reid-McConnell plan as-is. What those changes are and how the Senate would handle them is, of course, an important question. Those questions, of course, can’t really be answered until the legislative process starts to move forward, but we’re likely to get some hints this morning when the entire House GOP Caucus meets at the Capitol to determine its next step forward.
Unlike the Senate, of course, there will be little that even the most determined minority of Tea Party Republicans will be able to do to stop legislation if the Leadership wants to push it to the floor for a vote. That said, initial comments from those members of the group who were actually on the Hill yesterday were less than complementary. As noted above, Congressman Tim Huelskamp called supporters of the deal members of a “surrender caucus” before he even knew what was in the bill, and there have been similar comments from others of his ilk. The fact that members of this group were apparently plotting with Cruz last night is an indication that they’re still not necessarily ready to give up. The real question will be whether Boehner and the rest of the House GOP Leadership are willing to risk a leadership fight by bringing to the floor a bill that large numbers of Republicans will vote against. My personal guess is that they will. If they’ve done it in the past over Sandy Relief and the Violence Against Women Act renewal, there’s really no reason they wouldn’t do it this time when the stakes are so much higher. The fireworks that happen between now and then, and then thereafter, though, will be interesting to watch.
One thought that does occur, though, is that the House Republican Caucus really has no cause to object to the content of this deal. Yes, it’s likely to be just another exercise in kicking the can down the road (if that were an Olympic Sport, our Congress would be winning all the medals). Yes, it’s going to result in the creation of yet another committee with grandiose dreams that’s far more likely to disappoint than accomplish anything. And, no, it doesn’t really accomplish anything substantive in and of itself. However, it’s likely the best that can be done at this point. Had Congress been spending time over the summer, and in September, dealing with some of these issues then perhaps it would be a different story. However, instead, they allowed themselves get led to the blind alley of the Ted Cruz/Mike Lee/Freedomworks/Heritage Action “Defund Obamacare” strategy even when it was blindingly obvious that it couldn’t succeed. Now, when it’s obvious that some action must be taken there really isn’t any option left other than to kick the can down the road, again, and hope beyond hope that our Senators and Representatives will find a way to do something they haven’t shown the ability to do in at least the last four years. Govern.
Update: The House GOP Caucus meeting isn’t set to start until 9am EDT, but there’s already reports that the natives are restless.
Conservatives are revolting this morning in the House, will not accept Senate deal, decisions/calls in 6-8am range sealed fate among 50 Bloc
— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) October 15, 2013
On the one hand, losing as many as 50 House GOPers would be a bit embarrassing to Boehner and the Leadership, but that leaves some 180 or more who would be voting with them. Along with the inevitable Democratic votes, that would be more than enough to pass the bill. Stay tuned.
Further details from Costa:
A flurry of phone calls and meetings last night and early this morning led the consensus among the bloc of approximatley 50 Republicans who form the House GOP’s right flank. They’re furious with Senate Republicans for working with Democrats to craft what one leading Tea Party congressman calls a “mushy piece of s—t.” Another House conservative warns, “If Boehner backs this, as is, he’s in trouble.”
But that’s unlikely to happen. As of 8:30 a.m., House conservatives believe the leadership is well aware of their unhappiness, and they expect Boehner to talk up the House’s likely next move: another volley to the Senate, which would extend the debt ceiling, reopen the government, and set up a budget conference, as well as add a series of conservative-policy demands that are “stronger,” as one aide puts it, than the current Senate outline.
“What they’ll come up with in the Senate will not get the support of most House Republicans,” says a House conservative strategist. “ And thus, after a lot of hand-wringing, it’ll be DOA. Just like with BCA in 2011, the most important question is, what can pass the House? Everything else is subordinate to that. So, while the Senate is taking the lead right now, I expect the focus will soon shift back to the House, and back to the idea of doing a 6-week extension of the debt ceiling. While Obama and Reid won’t like it, they don’t want to go past Oct. 17 either – the politics of the debt ceiling are different from the shutdown. And so, [we feel] they’ll reluctantly accept it as a stopgap measure.”
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.