Last week, 19 of the most conservative Republicans in the House began jeering at Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., while he was teetering at the midpoint of a familiar GOP high-wire act.
Despite his failed run for the vice-presidency in 2012, Ryan is said to have presidential ambitions. But he also has governing responsibilities. And he's trying to eke out a narrow budget agreement with his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, D-Wash., to simultaneously ease sequestration's automatic spending cuts and reduce the threat of a government shutdown for the next couple of years.
The emerging deal (details of which remain tightly held) would spare the GOP's most sacred cows. If inked, it wouldn't raise revenue through the tax code, and would protect the Defense Department from sequestration's most severe cuts. At the same time, some of the savings in the deal would likely come out of the hide of federal workers who will be required to contribute more to their pension. It will just as likely contain no provision to renew emergency provisions for the long-term unemployed, which are about to lapse.
But it's still not good enough for the right.
These 19 conservatives didn't exactly say the deal should go down. But in a letter to House GOP leadership, they basically opposed the terms of the negotiation and pressed Speaker John Boehner to bring legislation to the floor that would undercut it.
"[W]e encourage you to allow a vote as soon as practicable on a full-year 'clean CR' funding bill at the levels established in law by the Budget Control Act," the letter reads. "Democrats are not interested in solving the problems created by the sequester: they are only interested in using the threat of the cuts as leverage to increase spending across the board, to increase our national debt, and to raise taxes and fees."
Nineteen signatures isn't a huge showing. A House version of the "defund Obamacare" letter that prefigured the government shutdown this October had many times more signatories. But it's also just a start. A Monday statement from the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action is best read as an effort to increase the signature count on that letter.
“Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions," Heritage said in anticipation of an official announcement from Ryan and Murray. "While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction.”
If the government shuts down in January, it will be an outgrowth of the confluence of these two developments. But that isn't to say it's likely. And Democrats know it.
Dems are in the process of shoring up opposition to a clean CR. If Republican defense hawks and appropriators stand up to the right as well, as they suggest they will, then a clean CR can't pass the House, and the question for GOP leaders is whether they're prepared to roll the Tea Party this time around.
That's a lot of moving parts, but almost all of them are moving within the Republican conference. And in theory that gives Democrats a small amount of leverage to push the negotiation leftward -- perhaps with a modest ask like extending emergency unemployment benefits for over a million Americans who've been unable to find work for months on end.
But the noises out of the Senate Democratic caucus suggest that they've already given up on extending emergency UI.
Perhaps, as Greg Sargent suggests, this is a symptom of risk aversion -- that Democrats view the sequestration relief Ryan's already agreed to as a bird in the hand.
"The original idea was that since House conservatives are certain to oppose anything that raises spending levels, Republicans would need Dems to pass any final deal through the House," he writes. "This should have theoretically given Dems leverage to insist on the extension. But according to the senior Senate aide, Dems are wary of killing a deal that lifts spending levels — a major progressive priority, given the sequester’s drag on the recovery and the impact of spending cuts on government – even if it means the fight over UI won’t be resolved in immediate budget talks."
The way I'd translate this would be to say that Democrats aren't actually confident House Republicans couldn't pass a clean CR if it came down to it -- either on their own or with the help of a few swing-district Democrats. If a Ryan-Murray agreement or something similar were really the only way for Republicans to prevent a government shutdown, why wouldn't Democrats press their advantage? Test the GOP and strike a blow for the economy as well?
This is back-of-the-envelope. But if emergency unemployment benefits lapse, the $25 billion hit to the economy would largely, if not entirely, offset the fiscal easing Ryan and Murray are contemplating on the discretionary side of the budget. That's not trivial
If a Ryan-Murray deal were the only viable budget vehicle, then digging in for extending emergency UI benefits as part of said deal would be such an obvious play politically, and on the economic merits, that it's hard to see Democrats' reluctance to pick the fight at this juncture as anything other than a testament to their belief that Republicans could act unilaterally and leave them on the hook for shutting down the government.
Given the weak-kneed performance House GOP moderates staged during the shutdown fight -- the willingness they demonstrated to allow hard-liners to lead them by the nose -- it's hard to blame Democrats for assuming these guys might not be reliable allies of convenience. And if that assessment is correct, then the two in the bush are unattainable, and Democrats are making the right move.