Twenty-two Senate Republicans, including Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, have signed a letter to President Obama in which they threaten to hold debt-ceiling legislation hostage unless they get immediate action that reduces spending on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare:
“Strong leadership is needed now to ensure that our entitlement programs can serve both current and future generations. Without action to begin addressing the deficit, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to support a further increase in the debt ceiling.”
Oddly, however, other than their demand for “strong leadership,” the senators offer no specifics. What kind of ransom are they demanding? What changes would they like to see? What exactly is their proposal?
They have none. Instead, they want President Obama to take the lead and propose changes by the artificial deadline they have set, and so far the president shows no sign of playing that game.
Obama has made his position quite clear: Yes, a long-term deal is going to have to be reached that addresses entitlement reform and budget discipline. Just yesterday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told Congress that “It is absolutely imperative that we find a bipartisan solution to bring down our deficits dramatically.”
However, neither Geithner nor Obama believes that such changes should be held hostage to either the debt-ceiling legislation or negotiations over the 2011 budget. They don’t want government by crisis, and they feel no obligation to help Republicans escape the rhetorical trap in which they’ve placed themselves. The administration continues to insist that it wants a “clean bill” raising the debt ceiling while a longer term deal is being worked out (the latest estimate is that the current debt ceiling will be reached between April 15 and May 31.)
As Geithner also said Wednesday, “Congress has to (raise the debt ceiling). There’s no alternative.”
In the House, another interesting dynamic is playing out. Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, have publicly stressed their intention to avoid a government shutdown over the 2011 budget or the debt ceiling. However, a good number of the GOP caucus clearly have different thoughts. On Tuesday, more than 50 House Republicans voted against a temporary three-week budget resolution backed by Boehner because they considered it insufficiently conservative.
“Things don’t change in Washington until they have to,” U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., warned on the House floor. “It’s time to pick a fight.”
That sets the stage for an interesting intra-party conflict. Over the next three weeks, Boehner and his lieutenants will attempt to negotiate a compromise budget bill with Senate Democrats and President Obama to get us through the rest of 2011 without a shutdown. However, any spending bill that would satisfy the Senate and the president will be deeply unsatisfying for the conservatives who dominate the House GOP caucus. They want “to pick a fight.” They want blood. Among other things, they want to gut EPA, gut Planned Parenthood and end funding for NPR, none of which the administration is likely to accept.
If Boehner delivers a bill that can pass the Senate and be signed by the president, his own backbenchers will revolt. If he insists on a bill that his caucus will back, the federal government will shut down.
It’s quite a dilemma for the speaker.
– Jay Bookman