The long, tortured path of getting to ‘yes’

There’s a lot to like about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan to raise the nation’s debt ceiling — especially if you’re a Republican.

The plan makes spending cuts of $2.7 trillion, while raising the nation’s credit card limit by $2.4 trillion, and it contains not a single tax increase. Those are precisely the conditions Republicans have put on the negotiations from the start.

In fact, as late as this weekend, Rep. Eric Cantor said the key to the standoff was to “remain united and insist that every dollar the debt limit is increased, we have equal or more dollars in spending cuts without any tax hikes.”

Done, Mr. Cantor. Just sign on the bottom line.

Alas, Cantor and a host of his fellow Republicans were not signing anything, despite getting what they’ve been demanding for weeks. And that underscores President Barack Obama’s prescient question of last week: Can the Republicans say yes to anything?

So far, not so much.

Instead of embracing Reid’s offer as a chance to end the standoff, Republicans were examining a rival plan by House Majority Leader John Boehner, which would raise the debt limit by about $1 trillion now, and more later, with more cuts.

The Boehner Two-Step has a decided political advantage: It would force another big fight over the debt ceiling next year, as Obama is running for re-election. That’s something the president and his fellow Democrats want to avoid, claiming the uncertainty of this debate has roiled markets enough. Any plan must extend at least through the end of next year (and, yes, safely after Election Day 2012.)

Boehner’s obvious ploy makes his quote to Politico seem all the more churlish: “I know the president’s worried about his next election. But my God, shouldn’t we be worried about the country?”

Indeed, shouldn’t we be? And now that Reid and Obama have endorsed a plan literally ripped from Republican playbooks, the question must become: What is keeping the Republicans from just saying yes?

Some point to the makeup of Reid’s plan. In addition to $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending, $100 billion in mandatory savings, $400 billion in savings on interest and other cuts, it includes at least $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reductions that were set to happen anyway.

This, some say, is a “gimmick.” (Indeed, Rep. Joe Heck sent out a Tweet Monday quoting The Washington Post using that very word.)

But here’s the thing: Republicans have embraced the same gimmick, inasmuch as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan also includes those $1 trillion in savings and counts them as deficit reduction. By the way, Heck voted for Ryan’s (apparently gimmick-laden) budget back in April.

Boehner has twice rejected a serious Democratic offer for a “grand bargain,” which would have seen $4 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years, as well as changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare that Democrats abhorred. But Boehner twice walked away from those talks, because he objected to tax increases for well-off Americans that were included in the deal. Very well, then, but the instant problem still remains.

All this talk of gimmicks, deficits and budget-balancing reminds me of Carson City, where Republicans and Democrats similarly stand off every other year before eventually finding common ground. Late one night during the 2009 session, I recall then-Speaker Barbara Buckley telling a lobbyist that she’d never once gotten everything she wanted out of a session, but at some point, it’s time to declare victory and go home.

Republicans in Washington should heed Buckley’s sage advice.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter at or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@

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