You can tell that Democrats have successfully changed the terms of the debate when Republicans are proposing an armistice in the budget fight that isn’t completely unrealistic and extortive. (It’s also a depressing testament to how low the bar has fallen, but never mind.)
The details are still emerging and will change quickly over the course the coming hours and days. Indeed, Democrats are already objecting to the idea of a debt limit extension of only six weeks, and probably have the power to force Republicans to lengthen it. But the offer House Republicans made to President Obama proposes creating parallel, slightly out-of-phase paths for increasing the debt limit and funding the government.
First, Congress would pass a debt limit extension, either implicitly or explicitly to create space for further budget negotiation. Then it would get to work on reopening the government with great haste — and the idea is to use a temporary appropriations measure as a vehicle for swapping sequestration relief with cuts to programs like Medicare, culled from President Obama’s budget.
It’s unclear if the give-and-take over the funding bill Republicans are proposing is the same thing as the budget negotiations they now want, or if they also want to spark a whole separate series of negotiations ahead of the next debt limit deadline.
These details matter. In part, they matter because Obama has articulated principles regarding the debate over sequestration that he can’t easily abandon. But they also matter because the order of operations must reflect an understanding that nothing is being negotiated away under the threat of default.
For instance, Obama would be inviting future shutdown brinksmanship if he agrees to a swap while the government’s still shut down. That’s a much less dangerous precedent to set, but it would still be an error.
Moreover, a brief debt limit increase will require Democrats to be wary of GOP attempts to reverse the precedent and to cease negotiations if they aren’t conducted on a neutral basis.
First and foremost Obama needs assurance that his process demands will be met. Otherwise this is just a temporary reprieve: Republicans allowing the hostages a little supervised outdoor time in the recreation yard.
But the substantive give-and-take Republicans have put forward isn’t completely bananas. Your mileage may vary, but in a threatless environment, a proposal to pay down sequestration with separate cuts to entitlement benefits for prosperous seniors isn’t meritless. It’s arguable. In isolation, it would reward GOP Norquistism, which is a problem. But the whole point of this confrontation is that the parties should be able to haggle over the merits in an open-ended fashion.
Democrats should have ample time to counteroffer. If Republicans remain resolutely opposed to tax equity, as I assume they do, that’s OK. There are more things between heaven and earth than taxes and direct spending programs. Obama has an entire agenda that’s been stalled for the last nine months. Democrats could propose infrastructure spending, Obama’s pre-K initiative, a guaranteed conscience vote on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, the abolition of the debt limit altogether.
If Democrats still don’t believe the GOP’s anti-tax absolutism is durable, they can offer to pay down the non-defense portion of sequestration with other cuts and let the party reckon with the tension between its revenue allergy and its hawkishness.
I could go on. The point is that by abandoning its “what’s ours is ours and what’s yours is negotiable” posture, the GOP will be rewarded with a profusion of potential outcomes.
Maybe none of them will fly. But that’s fine. There will be elections in the future. The nature of the deal needs to establish that if Republicans lose them, they can’t cause an artificial crisis and seize control of the domestic agenda.