Welcome to debt-ceiling eve!
Thursday is the day when the secretary of the treasury says the government will run out of borrowing authority and run into trouble paying its bills. As this is written on Tuesday, members of Congress — including Nevada’s senior senator, Harry Reid — were meeting and trying to arrive at an agreement to avert a default, which experts say would be bad on a global scale.
Here’s a thought: First, pass a temporary budget bill that keeps the government open until January, at spending levels consistent with the sequester that’s already in place. Second, lift the debt ceiling at least until February. Third, allow House and Senate lawmakers to go to conference on a long-term budget and produce a bill that both houses could vote on by mid-December.
Why yes, that is the basic plan that Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have been working on. And it’s a good plan.
But get this: It’s also essentially the plan that Reid and House Speaker John Boehner agreed on weeks ago: a budget resolution uncomplicated by conditions, which averted the need for a government shutdown and allowed both sides to focus on raising the debt ceiling and the associated negotiations that go along with it. Reid said he initially wanted a temporary budget bill that exceeded the sequester by about $70 billion, but ultimately compromised with Boehner, who insisted that any extension reflect sequester budget cuts. But House Republicans objected to the budget deal because of their ongoing crusade to gut the Affordable Care Act, and the Reid-Boehner deal fell apart.
And thus the government shut down.
On Tuesday, reports had the House working on a bill that would also re-open the government and lift the debt ceiling, but would also include a two-year repeal of the medical device tax and eliminate the health care subsidy given to members of Congress, their staffs, the president, the vice president and Cabinet members. Reid declared this bill dead on arrival in the Senate. He called its introduction “unproductive and a waste of time.”
It’s actually worse than that: Republicans attempting to re-fight their losing battle over the Affordable Care Act is what created this problem, and doubling down on it won’t solve anything. Not only that, eliminating the health care subsidy for some federal employees is silly; the Review-Journal subsidizes my employer-provided health care, and the Affordable Care Act doesn’t eliminate that. Why should federal employees be penalized for something millions of private-sector workers get every day?
The good news about the Reid-McConnell plan is that it would allow House and Senate members to stop talking about the health care law, upon which the president and Democrats are rightly refusing to re-negotiate, and allow them to start talking about the budget, which is always the subject of negotiations. Republicans have lately said they just want the president to negotiate with them, and this offers a way to do that.
The bad news about the plan is this: What if the budget conference committee produces a bill that’s unacceptable to either side? What if Republicans continue to insist on somehow de-funding or delaying the health care law? What if Democrats insist on abandoning the second round of sequester cuts set to take effect in mid-January? What if the final product can’t get a majority in either house?
If that’s the case, we’ll be back in the exact same position we’re in right now, only in January and February, just as the 2014 election season is gearing up. Politics has already bedeviled this process. It will only get worse as Election Day approaches. But a long-term increase in the debt ceiling — say for a year or more — seems out of reach. And the silly government shutdown needs to end, as quickly as possible. With the House approach dead, the Reid-McConnell idea is the most viable plan left.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.