Well, we're back to a "grand bargain" as the solution to the gigantic budget mess in Washington, a concept deservedly mocked after an all-encompassing budget deal in 2011 and 2012. Now, the prospect of an everyone-gets-what-he-wants deal is even less likely, because more people want a lot more things.
The renewal of the "grand bargain" as unifying principle emerged slightly before House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went to the White House to meet with President Obama on Wednesday evening. Politico wrote that "pragmatic House Republicans" thought that the best way to come up with a funding bill (ending the shutdown) and an increase to the debt ceiling (preventing default) was "to strike a big budget deal." To The National Review, a "senior Democratic source" described the response from his party when Boehner proposed it: the speaker "was laughed at because everyone feels like they’ve heard this song and dance before. … [T]he history of this from where we sit is Boehner talking a big game, then bailing as soon as he runs into the inevitable resistance from a certain faction in his caucus."
In 2011, the "grand bargain" meant Democrats conceding to cuts to social programs and Republicans allowing a tax increase. In late 2012, the president offered another "grand bargain" with similar components. Today, though, a solution satisfying all sides would almost certainly not be so simple — and not just because of conflicting policy priorities. Any grand bargain resolving the current dispute would need to incorporate all of these demands.
Obama and the Democrats
Demand: Open government and raise the debt ceiling before anything else.
The Democrats' demands seem simple enough. As Obama explained to CNBC last night, he and his party are perfectly willing to negotiate with the Republicans — after the GOP passes a full funding resolution with no qualifiers and raises the debt ceiling. Or, in other words, after the Republicans sacrifice the pressure points they are trying to use as leverage.
The Democrats' longer-term goals are broader. Reduce or eliminate spending cuts from sequestration, maintain social service spending, increase taxes on high wage earners. But none of those things will be put on the table, they maintain, until government is open and the threat of default is gone. While what the Republicans offer has never been an actual point of negotiation — "Get rid of Obamacare or the government gets it" — some believe that the only way they can get policy priorities they've wanted for a long time is to use a shutdown or default to force concessions. Take that away, and any negotiations are what they would have been earlier this year, when Republicans repeatedly declined to meet over the budget: a contest between two branches of government with a Democratic president acting as tie-breaker.
Odds this demand is met: Reasonably high. The Democrats maintain the stronger position in the debate, as polling continually indicates.
Demand: Some way to save face.
As inelegant as it is, Republicans being hammered repeatedly on the shutdown are almost certainly happy to bring it to a conclusion — but are unlikely to do so unless there's something that can count as a political victory. The strategy so far has consisted of trying to leverage politically popular points of tension to embarrass the Democrats (the stand-off at the World War II memorial, the very dumb "Harry Reid hates sick kids" meme) to pass small-bore funding resolutions. It hasn't shown many signs of success.
Byron York at the Washington Examiner writes: "the small-bore bills are just a small-bore solution to part of the problem. There is still no government funding, and beyond the targeted measures, Republicans have no new ideas about what to do." He quotes a Republican strategist: The memorial and Reid things "were positive tactical moments that gave some breathing room. But there has yet to be a strategic moment that is a clear, outright win."
Or, as Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman (above right) told the Washington Examiner, "We're not going to be disrespected... We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is." (Stutzman apologized on Thursday, saying in a statement, "I carelessly misrepresented the ongoing budget debate and Speaker Boehner’s work on behalf of the American people.")
Odds this demand is met: Decent. In an effort to resolve the shutdown, it seems possible that Democrats will allow some sort of victory for Republicans that allows a majority to pass legislation. What that victory is, however, leads us to our next point.
Demand: Some win on Obamacare.
One possibility is to pass yet another continuing resolution, this one with just one Obamacare measure attached to it. Perhaps it would be the repeal of the medical device tax, or perhaps it would be some variant of the Vitter Amendment, to forbid members of Congress and staff from receiving special subsidies when they purchase health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges.
For the Tea Party/conservative caucus, any win on Obamacare is a big win overall. York suggests that the medical device tax repeal, long a priority for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, could find favor in the Senate. It's not clear if such a measure would pass if attached to a funding bill, but it's perhaps the best possibility.
The other question is whether or not anything so minor would actually be seen as a victory by the conservative caucus. In the last full funding resolution passed by the House, several members of this group voted no because it fell short of a full defunding of Obama's health care plan. It's hard to think that they would consider a repeal of a tax that largely benefits corporations to be the sort of victory they hoped to eke out.
Odds this demand is met: Very low. This is the president's line in the sand, and it's unlikely he'll cross it.
Demand: An unamended funding bill over the short term.
The 20-or-so moderate Republicans who are on-record in support of a quick, clean resolution re-opening the government are enough to give the Democrats a majority in the House on such a proposal. (The obstruction is Boehner, who would need to allow such a vote.) This group almost certainly wants other concessions further down the road, but for now, representing districts that are mostly middle-of-the-road, they just want the tension to end.
Odds this demand is met: High — assuming that Boehner comes around. If Boehner continues to refuse such a vote, the odds are zero.
Demand: Tying a debt ceiling increase to spending cuts.
In a column at The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Karl Rove spoke on behalf of the Senate's minority group.
Some Senate Republicans are discussing bundling the mandatory and discretionary spending cuts in the president's own budget with an equal amount in Republican suggestions for future spending cuts, and offering to increase the debt ceiling by that amount. The thinking here is that Mr. Obama could hardly object to a debt-ceiling increase offset by his own proposed spending cuts.
That thinking seems wrong on its face. Obama has repeatedly suggested that he will not trade a debt ceiling vote for any concession, and there is a lot to suggest that he means it.
But moreover, this idea — only lifting the debt ceiling as much as spending is trimmed, known as the Boehner Rule — is inherently risky. In January, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explained the long-term effects. In short, it "would require additional deficit reduction in any year in which the debt grows in dollar terms — that is, whenever the budget is in deficit — even if the debt is stable or shrinking in relation to the economy." Growth of debt isn't necessarily linked to an increase in deficit spending, as we are seeing right now. The deficit is shrinking, but the debt is growing. The Boehner Rule that Rove champions would mean that spending would have to be cut regardless — which could itself have serious economic consequences. And even the Republican Party's most austere serious budget proposal, that of Rep. Paul Ryan, shows deficits into the 2020s. Constantly slashing spending each year in order to pay bills could be disastrous.
Odds this demand is met: Very low.
Republicans outside of D.C.
Demand: Anything at all, just make it stop.
Non-Congressional Republicans are eager to see this entire thing resolved, and fast. MSNBC reports that the party's governors are largely sitting on the sidelines, apparently not eager to be tied to the unpopular behavior of their colleagues in D.C. "I believe [D.C. Republicans] need to get us a budget or a continuing resolution," conservative Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (at right) said, "and we need to get America, the United States back on track."
Perhaps more importantly, the Daily Beast reports that Republican donors are also antsy.
“We are finding a marvelous way to grab defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based businessman who was a major donor to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “The way we are handling this has been a mistake from the beginning. I think we misread where the country was.”
Being seen as a party beholden to extreme interests and unwilling to compromise is not what these donors signed up for. “People need to stand up and not be afraid of the Tea Party," one donor said, predicting that this fight "may be a turning point" in doing so.
Odds this demand is met: Certain. At some point, all of this will end. All that needs to happen is that every demand above needs to be resolved or ignored. Which is what politics is all about.
(Photos via Associated Press.)