Throughout the afternoon, details kept leaking. President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were “starting to close in on a major budget deal,” reported the New York Times, citing unnamed sources close to Democratic congressional leaders. The Obama-Boehner pact would include “$3 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years to avert an unprecedented U.S. default,” a “senior Democratic congressional aide” told Reuters.
Cue jokes about “Denial” being more than a river in Egypt. “We are not close to a deal,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. “There is no deal,” Boehner told Rush Limbaugh, reiterating his support of the House-passed Cut, Cap and Balance plan.
As we go to press, rumors swirl that we stand at the precipice of a major bipartisan agreement that would rein in entitlement spending, pave the way for tax reform, and increase the debt ceiling with no guarantee of tax hikes. One would think both the president and the speaker would be hailing this as a major victory.
Yet it remains the deal that dare not speak its name.
Why? In part because restive liberals could object to any meaningful spending cuts outside the Pentagon and demand tax increases in a fragile economy. Democratic leaders also object to their exclusion from the talks that reportedly produced the deal.
But let’s face it: disenchanted liberals have yet to stand in the way of any deal Obama has had to strike, from the continuation of Bush’s wars and tax cuts to the dropping of the public option from the health care bill.
The greater risk is that conservatives in Boehner’s House will torpedo the plan. Many of them campaigned in favor of serious spending cuts. A majority took the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which could be violated if loophole closings aren’t matched dollar-for-dollar by marginal rate cuts. Some don’t even think the version of Cut, Cap and Balance that passed the House goes far enough. A few oppose raising the debt ceiling under any attainable circumstances.
Conservatives will be wary of any “balanced plan,” for by balanced the president does not mean balanced budgets. That is code for revenue raisers and enhancements, among other euphemisms for tax increases. The history of bipartisan betrayals is long and baleful.
We are constantly reminded that in 1982, Ronald Reagan raised taxes as part of a deficit-reduction deal with congressional Democrats. He believed he had achieved $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Reagan later lamented, “Congress never cut spending by even one penny.”
Eight years later, George Bush accepted tax increases as part of a similar deal. He was promised $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax hikes. Instead all $137 billion of the tax increases happened but spending went up $22 billion over the baseline. The actual spending cuts came from the defense budget. At the end of the five-year budget window, non-defense spending was $91 billion higher than what the Congressional Budget Office had projected before the 1990 agreement was reached.
As recently as April, Republicans accepted a deal to avoid a government shutdown. There were no tax increases this time, but precious little in the way of spending cuts either. First it was advertised as cutting $38 billion out of $3.8 trillion. Then the CBO later found the bipartisan agreement reduced this year’s deficit by a mere $352 million.
But it is the memory of the 1990 budget agreement that lingers the longest. For not only did it help usher “Read My Lips” Bush out of office, but it fueled the rise of Newt Gingrich, who opposed the tax increase, and the fall of then House Republican leader Bob Michel, who dutifully supported it. There is no shortage of conservatives in the House who would relish the opportunity to play Newt to Boehner’s Bob Michel.
Boehner is no Michel, obviously. He is better trusted by members of the House Republican Conference than some potential Gingriches. But he was clear in his interview with Rush Limbaugh that he does not believe the United States can risk default by not raising the debt ceiling. Since that’s how the speaker sees the stakes, he is likely to cut a deal with Obama in the end, even if he needs some Democratic votes to pass it.
There’s an old, possibly apocryphal story about a Republican congressional aide who told a group of visiting Russian legislators that the U.S. has a two-party system divided between the Stupid Party and the Evil Party. “Periodically, the two parties get together and do something stupid and evil,” the aide is supposed to have said. “That is called bipartisanship.”
That tale captures the mood of many Republicans right now and the hurdle Boehner will have to clear in selling them any deal with Obama.