Now that the US government has re-opened and the debt ceiling raised leaving untouched the Affordable Care Act, the ostensible trigger for the crisis, the nature of the settlement has prompted speculation as to whether we are going to have a repeat of this in a few months. The deal involves three deadlines: December 13 is when a bipartisan group of legislators from both the House of Representative and the Senate are supposed to come up with a new budget plan; January 15 is when the most recent continuing resolution ends; and February 7 is when the debt ceiling will need to be raised again.
There are fairly strong reasons to think that the current brinkmanship will not be repeated. For one thing, the tactic has undoubtedly hurt those who most advocated for it, putting what seemed like a solid expectation of Republican electoral gains in the 2014 elections in serious doubt. That alone should cast a pall on any enthusiasm for a repeat, at least among the top party leadership.
But against this is the fact that we are talking about a faction within the Republican party that is driven by a quasi-religious fervor that seems to care little about calculations of short term electoral gains and losses. They believe that time will show that god is on their side. The split in the party has little to do with ideology (all factions pretty much agree on all the major and even minor issues) and more to do with whether one is pure of heart, which has to be demonstrated by being willing to fight the good fight to the bitter end. This group will undoubtedly be willing to push for another showdown to defund the Affordable Care Act if they feel that that is their only bargaining lever.
But there are two significant things to note . When asked at a news conference last Wednesday when the deal was finalized whether he expected the drama to be repeated in three months time, president Obama said simply and emphatically ‘no’. And when the senate’s Republican leader Mitch McConnell was asked the same question, he too unequivocally said ‘no’. How could they be so sure, since the dominant narrative is that House speaker John Boehner is under the thumb of the Tea Party that mostly occupies safe seats and seem to think that brinkmanship is a fine tactic? What makes them think that things will be different next time around?
In the case of McConnell, his comments may be a pre-emptive signal to Republicans not to try this tactic again because he will oppose it from the outset. Last time, he stayed on the sidelines and did not speak out against this move until the very end. This may be because he is in a tough re-election battle for his senate seat in Kentucky. Earlier he may have been worried about his Tea Party primary opponent who was being funded by those who were behind the shut down but he now seems confident that he will survive that challenge and that his main threat seems to be his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes who is running a close race. He clearly feels that to win he needs the support of centrist voters that he can appeal to by appearing as a competent dealmaker and another Republican-inspired government shut down could hurt his chances by making him seem like an extremist. That is how the Kentucky media seems to see it.
I think that he and Obama are so confident because they, along with Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, have come to some informal agreement on the next steps. What worries me is that this agreement may be along the lines of the so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ whereby the Democrats cut earned benefits such as Social Security and Medicare in exchange for some small tax increases, and that the awful sequester cuts will become normalized. The oligarchs have as their Holy Grail cutting the government’s budget and eliminating these earned benefit programs entirely, and they know that they can only achieve such cuts under a Democratic administration. They have orchestrated this major hoax that the debt is killing us as a way to strangle the government.
What I would like to see as the starting position for negotiations on the Democratic side is an end to the sequester, a major cut in defense spending, an increase in stimulus spending to lift the economy and create more jobs, raised taxes on upper-income people, minimum wages raised to at least $15 per hour, and more spending on services to the really poor, such as SNAP. But of course, that will not happen. The Democratic starting point will be, as usual, to unilaterally surrender most of those options before the talks even start (the way they did with the single-payer option before the debate leading to the Affordable Care Act even began) and then quibble on the margins of Republican demands.
This is why it is important to keep a close eye on the budget negotiations leading up to the December 13 deadline. One thing that might hinder a total giveaway of the earned benefits is that Senator Bernie Sanders has been named to the Senate and House budget conference committee. (You can see the full list of members here.) Sanders has been a stalwart defender of earned benefits and funding that serves the poor and the working poor and has issued a statement about where he stands, saying:
“I am excited about being a member of the budget conference committee and I look forward to working with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to end the absurdity of sequestration and to develop a budget which works for all Americans. In my view, it is imperative that this new budget helps us create the millions of jobs we desperately need and does not balance the budget on the backs of working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”
Of course, his is just one voice and can be outvoted. Another thing that might stop a bad ‘Grand Bargain’ is, oddly enough, the intransigence of the Tea Party caucus. They are so adamantly opposed to tax increases in any form that they will reject any compromise that includes them, especially since the ACA is not going to be on the negotiating table in any meaningful way.
So it will again come to the issue of whether the Republican leadership in the House will be willing to bring a deal to the floor for a vote that, like the previous one, will pass with mostly Democratic votes. I am not sure how many times speaker John Boehner can go to that particular well before the Tea Party caucus tosses him into it.