The debt-ceiling crisis is likely to follow a familiar rhythm this week. There will be publicly announced meetings to forge a solution, and there will be furtive ones where the real work gets done. There will be new plans put on the table like Sen. Tom Coburn’s hyper-ambitious scheme to lop $9 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, an idea so sweeping that Coburn, a trained physician, dubbed it dead on arrival when he appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.
Until there’s a deal, the important thing isn’t the details of the individual proposals. There aren’t many specifics, and even if there were, well, they’re sure to change. The issue is the narrative: Which side is telling the most convincing story that can play with colleagues on the Hill, on K-Street, and out in the country?
Each side has done a lot of pirouettes to keep up with the changing politics of the moment. This spring, the White House was insisting on a “clean” extension of the debt ceiling. No budget cutting attached to it, nada. Then came a 180-degree turn and talk of a “grand bargain.” Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan floated last week was a kind of white flag that would force Democrats to raise the debt ceiling by themselves. Everybody is shifting.
These kinds of gyrations by politicians would be surprising if they weren’t echoed by the cognitive dissonance of the American public. Voters tell pollsters they want budget cuts and Social Security and Medicare preserved. At times they see the federal government as a big wad of fat that can be cut with a cleaver; at other times they see draconian budget cutting as the equivalent of cutting off your leg to lose weight.
So, in this environment, each side shifts its narrative—except for the most partisan members of the left and right and the outside groups that are egging them on. Here’s how they’re doing. (The grades aren’t based on the merits of their ideas but on how they’re playing):
The Wise Men. The group with the greatest chance for success is the Senate leadership. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been working with Mitch McConnell to modify his make-the-Democrats-lift-the-ceiling plan. There’s talk of adding cuts to the package, lowering the amount of debt that’s borrowed, and adding a super-commission that would look for more cuts—something along the lines of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). This plan has the appearance of reasonableness—“we take default seriously”—but it doesn’t try to solve the long-term debt problem. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there will be a default,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told ABC’s This Week. High marks for reasonableness. But it’s still a climb. Coburn said on Sunday he probably wouldn’t go for it. B+
We Came to Do a Job. The tea party-inspired freshmen have made themselves abundantly clear. They came to cut and not to fret about reelection. The cut-cap-and-balance plans get votes in the House this week, including a balanced budget amendment that caps government as a percentage of GDP and requires supermajorities to ever raise taxes. None of this can pass the Democratic Senate, but it allows the freshmen to say that they tried. The question is where they take their narrative once their ideas have been shot down. Will they kill a $1.5 trillion cut just because it’s not big enough? On Fox News Sunday, the leader of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio., said that the McConnell plan couldn’t get 218 Republican votes. But when pressed, he couldn’t say if it would get 218 votes—Democrats and Republicans. The tea party may have to accept that. For now, they seem principled. B-
A Big and Balanced Deal. The White House has been pushing a big deal, replete with revenue increases from closing tax deductions. But there’s a reason the president isn’t talking corporate jet deductions with the same vehemence he was a couple of weeks ago. Now the talk is all about how we get to the finish line. The White House has always been clear that it would regard default as catastrophic, and its hard line seems to be working. The number of members who think of default as no big deal seems to be dwindling. But the insistence on revenue hikes seems likely to fall. B
In the end, someone’s got to give.
This article appears in the July 18, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.