In the immortal words of Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Two years ago negotiations over an increase in the federal borrowing limit, colloquially known as the debt ceiling, had reached a critical point. Republicans pushed for a dollar-for-dollar cut to the deficit to match any proposed increase in the debt ceiling. Democrats balked at the concept, instead pushing for a package that included modest spending restraint and massive new taxes. Despite the apparent disconnect, President Obama and John Boehner sat down and attempted to work out a “grand bargain” that would allow both sides to claim victory.
And against all odds a deal appeared imminent. Until, that is, President Obama changed its mind at the last minute.
“The White House moved the goal posts,” John Boehner said after talks stalled, apparently due to Obama demanding $400 billion more in revenues above what the two had previously agreed to. “It’s the president who walked away from this agreement and demanded more money at the last minute.”
Nearly the exact same script, albeit with slightly different actors, has played out in this year’s debt limit debacle. Over the past several weeks House Republicans have lobbed offer, after offer, after offer, over to the Senate, only to watch each crash and burn at the feet of Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Throughout it all, Reid has steadfastly refused to negotiate. Despite a vast majority of the public that urged Congress to collaborate on a bipartisan path forward, Sen. Reid knew that the GOP would bear the brunt of the political pain. So while congressional Republicans labored in vain on a deal that Reid would constantly chuck into the waste bin, Reid made a cynical political calculation that a government shutdown would actually help his cause.
If he could delay long enough, even to the point where markets became worried and the stock market became volatile, he’d have Republicans right where he wanted them.
It was assumed that Democrats’ goal was beat Republicans into submission in order to achieve a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling, i.e. one that had no deficit reducing preconditions. But House Speaker John Boehner offered that idea up on Friday night only to be rejected by the President because he wanted a longer-term increase. Everyone seemed stumped, especially since White House press secretary Jay Carney indicated that Obama would accept such an offer.
It was then up to Republicans in the Senate to find a way forward. To that end, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to come up with an exceedingly modest deal—one that would delay the medical device tax and strengthen income verification tools for Obamacare subsidies in exchange for a six-month debt limit increase.
In what can only be described as a stunning move of partisan conceit, Reid rejected the plan. The reason? Because it locked in spending at sequester levels, which Democrats apparently hate, despite the fact that the sequester mechanism was the White House’s idea from the start! And what’s more, Harry Reid personally agreed to it!
This latest maneuver has literally put negotiations back to square one.
“We clear back to a clean state and start where we were before,” Sen. Tom Harkin told reporters. “That’s where the appropriations and the budget negotiations need to start from. Patty Murray [the Democrats’ budget chair] should start negotiating from our standpoint – $1.058 trillion. And if they want to start from their standpoint, fine.”
In other words, Democrats have moved from their initial offer of a “clean” continuing resolution, which would fund the government at current levels, to now asking for more money! Spending restraint? Pshaw. With the GOP on the run this is Democrats chance to blow the bank. But moving the goalposts this late in the negotiations, just as agreement seemed imminent, could quickly blow up in their face.
“I think the Democrats are on the verge of being one tick too cute as they see the House possibly in disarray – they now are overreaching, and I think that what we’ve got to do is get this back in the middle of the road, act like adults,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Unfortunately, the childish flip-flopping by Democrats in the last two debt limit negotiations gives little indication that “acting like adults” is part of their playbook.