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The Daily Need

Rival debt plans aren’t so far apart, but brinkmanship continues

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 28, 2011. Photo: AP/Susan Walsh

Today’s debt ceiling talks are all about gamesmanship. Very little of consequence will likely change in the actual final outcome — if there is an outcome other than a default — but the leaders of both chambers of Congress are nonetheless doubling down on their rival plans. And with every vote that each leader is able to scrounge together for his own debt ceiling measure, the chances for compromise narrow.

House Speaker John Boehner is furiously whipping votes in an attempt to shore up his proposed legislation, which would raise the debt ceiling in two steps and cut roughly $915 billion from the national deficit. Conservative members of his caucus have expressed rabid opposition to the plan because it doesn’t go far enough, and most have shown no signs of capitulating.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, has notified Boehner that his bill faces certain defeat in the Senate, where all 51 Democrats and two independents have vowed to vote against it. Reid’s bill, by contrast, would cut about $900 billion from the deficit (or $2.2 trillion if you count savings from winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and raise the debt ceiling through the 2012 election.

So what happens next? Brinkmanship, most likely. Boehner’s desperate bid to pass his bill in the House is not solely about resolving the crisis; it’s also about shoring up his position as speaker and staving off the threat of a challenge from conservative Tea Party members who, because of their ideological opposition to tax increases and deficit spending, have been unwilling to bend toward a compromise.

Since Boehner and Reid unveiled their prospective proposals, however, a theoretical deal has at least been in sight, since the two measures have quite a lot in common. They each aim for an almost identical amount in cuts to discretionary spending — about $1 trillion each — and would set up a 12-member congressional committee to seek longer-term cuts along the lines of a “grand  bargain.”

Some commentators don’t like this. Andrew Sullivan writes:

My main issue with both plans is that they punt on the Grand Bargain option, and I cannot see that that is going to be easier to achieve in an election year. The Reid plan gets us past the next election without the kind of uncertainty that could rattle markets and depress growth and investment. But the Boehner plan is more credible with short term cuts. It’s a wash, I’d say.

It’s hard to see, though, how a “grand bargain” along the lines of what Boehner and President Obama had been pursuing would still be viable, given that large numbers of House Republicans have vowed to oppose anything that doesn’t place firm controls on spending and require a balanced budget. Some have even pledged to vote against raising the debt ceiling altogether.

A deal that simply takes this issue off the table through the 2012 election, then, seems more likely, and perhaps even more palatable to liberals who are furious with Obama for acquiescing on key policy demands, such as tax hikes. For those liberals, the better option is simply to agree to a deal of roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion in cuts now, raise the debt ceiling, and then allow the Bush tax cuts to expire next year.

So two sides are actually not as far apart at the moment as it would seem, at least regarding the substance of the rival bills. But the political gamesmanship must, unfortunately, play out. Boehner will try to get his bill passed in the House, and Reid will thwart it in the Senate, where he will try to pass his own measure. They’ll jockey for position and preemptively blame each other for the crisis.

The problem, of course, is that both sides are now waiting for the other to cave. Boehner’s leadership team believes that if they are able to pass their debt ceiling proposal, which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has already branded as “a compromise bill,” Democrats will be forced to acquiesce. Democrats, in turn, are hoping the Boehner bill will fail, forcing him to consider the Senate alternative.

All the back-and-forth, of course, leaves very little room for negotiating, which is why it’s not unfeasible — though certainly bewildering — that lawmakers will fail to reach an agreement by the August 2 deadline. If Boehner’s bill passes, Democrats will defeat it in the Senate and either pass their own plan or, more likely, a compromise. It remains to be seen whether Republicans in the House can stomach it.

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