You may recall how Congress, perhaps swept up in the spirit of the holidays, reached bipartisan consensus on a budget bill last December. Well, with only days left before the government is no longer able to pay its bills, House Republicans see this as the perfect time to renege on their December concessions.
Update, 9:40 a.m.: Or, maybe not. According to reports from the party's morning caucus meeting, the plan described below may be dropped before it even comes to a vote — despite policy language having been drafted. We'll update this post as this develops.
I didn't even have time to write up Gene Sperling's reaction to the House GOP's debt ceiling plan before the debt ceiling plan fell apart— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) February 11, 2014
After a less-heated-than-usual meeting on Monday afternoon — and after weeks of debate over other possibilities — the caucus came up with a deal they would accept. Part of that December deal included a gradual reduction to the annual cost-of-living increase given to retired members of the military in their pensions. House Republicans would like to undo that reduction, in exchange for removing the debt ceiling entirely until March 2015. Since the party's informal mantra is "no increase in costs without cuts" they'd also like to extend sequester cuts to a Medicare reimbursement program for an additional year.
The net effect, then, would be that the December deal, which finalized government funding through 2015, would be retroactively stripped of the main provision Republicans didn't like and add a cut to an "entitlement" program that they were angry they didn't get in the first place. Obviously that's appealing. All the reward of bipartisan praise in December; none of the actual compromise once February rolls around.
As National Journal points out, it's basically a dis to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan was the architect of the used-to-be-a-compromise, finalizing a deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray a little ahead of the schedule set after the government shutdown last October. When he arrived at the Republican caucus meeting on Monday, he strode in "w/ iPod earplugs in, head bouncing to Zeppelin," according to The Washington Post's Robert Costa. But he had no comment on the potential rollback to his hard-earned compromise.
All of that said, it's not clear what actually happens once the bill comes up for a vote. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told lawmakers that the government's ability to pay its bills will run out on or around February 27. (The debt ceiling — the amount the government is allowed to borrow to pay money it already owes — has already been reached.) The House is not in session next week, leaving only five working days to pass an increase to the debt limit.
The Post reports that, while the debate over a plan didn't have the same contentiousness as past Republican deliberations, the party will likely need Democrats to vote for the proposal in order for it to pass the House. That's, in part, why the military pension issue was selected as a ride-along — who wants to vote to reduce veterans' pensions? While prominent conservatives appear to be willing to let an unaltered debt ceiling increase move forward, there is still a contingent that opposes any increase. (Like Sen. Ted Cruz, who still seems to think that he's House-Speaker-in-Exile.)
But even if the bill passes the House, it would need to then get through the Democrat-led Senate and be signed into law by President Obama — and Obama has offered no indication at all that he's open to horse-trading. During his daily press conference on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected the idea that anything besides a clean debt ceiling increase would be acceptable. "We’re not going to pay ransom on behalf of the American people to Republicans in Congress," Carney said, "so that Republicans in Congress fulfill their constitutional responsibilities."
The most likely outcome, as it has been for some time, is that the House reverts to a clean increase at some point fairly close to the deadline. The worst case is default, though that seems unlikely. The best case for House Republicans is that they get a do-over on the only actual compromise Congress has seen in months. But that's unlikely, too.