Friday, December 21, 2012

The GOP is Playing a Very Bad Game of Chess - But Does That Mean Anything for a Cliff Deal?

December has not exactly been the GOP's proudest moment.  They have been out-flanked every step of the way by the Democrats and have looked disorganized, unreasonable and even downright silly.  Two events cap how badly they have navigated the fiscal cliff debate:
(1) McConnell Filibusters Himself
President Obama, as part of one of his offers on the cliff, had proposed as part of the resolution, that Congress do away with the need to periodically increase the debt ceiling.  The President's thinking was - Congress has to authorize all of the actual expenditures that lead to a debt-ceiling hike being necessary in the first place, so the vote is redundant and all it does is create conflict and risk the US credit rating.  The GOP, of course, has no desire to give up leverage on the debt ceiling, which they hope to use to extract additional spending cuts, including entitlement reform.

Hoping to embarrass Obama by showing how little Democratic support his proposal hid, Mitch McConnell proposed a bill that would permanently eliminate the cap on the debt ceiling.  His thinking surely was that Democrats in the Senate were not ready to sign off on such a bill.  The only problem is that they absolutely were and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved quickly to vote to pass the bill.

All of this put McConnell in the position of realizing that this bill that he has proposed, but opposed, would actually pass.  McConnell promptly filibustered a vote on his own bill in order to kill it.  That's right, HE proposed the bill, then filibustered it.

That's a high score on the stupid-meter if I've ever seen it.

(2) Boehner Better Get a Plan C
There is no doubt about the going-in GOP position to the negotiations - that they didn't want any income taxes to go up (they were less worried, as far as I can tell, about payroll taxes going up, but income tax rates were critical.)  The House has already passed a bill, essentially with only GOP votes, to extend all of the tax rate cuts at all income levels.

Realizing that there was no way that the President was going to sign off on such a bill and that he would likely slam the GOP for holding middle-class tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for the very wealthy, Boehner rallied this week around a "Plan B" - a plan to extend tax rate cuts for everyone under $1 million in income.  Surely, he must have thought, if the President vetoes that bill (or the Senate refuses to take it up), it will be the Democrats who will be blamed for holding middle class tax cuts hostage, since he would have compromised and agreed to let rates rise for the richest.

There was only one problem with Boehner's plan - his own caucus didn't support it.  Boehner had to suddenly cut bait and not even vote on the proposal yesterday, after it became clear it would fail broadly in a floor vote.

So the GOP is clearly is disarray at the moment, and the polls reflect this.  His approval rating is up to 56% in the Gallup poll (and at similar rates in other recent polls), the highest in over 3 years.  A solid majority (52%) believe that the GOP needs to give more on the fiscal cliff, while a much smaller minority (40%) believe that the President hasn't given enough.

All of that said, I don't know how this will play out.  Knowing how badly they've fumbled and that the nation is uniting against their point of view, the GOP should give ground.  A conservative friend of mine, certainly no fan of the President or the Democrats (he told me the last time he voted for a Democrat was a state senate race in Virginia in 1988), put it very clearly - "we had an election over this.  We lost.  We need to get over it."  But the modern GOP is a complex animal.  Certainly Boehner and the mainstream Democrats in the Senate from purple states (see John McCain or the departing Scott Brown) want a deal.  But the Tea-Party loyalists who won primary battles on the basis of their ideological purity, may not care a whiff that the public is against them.  If they can't even get behind a $1 million+ rate hike increase, what are the odds that they can support a deal that the President can live with?

The best chance for a deal is a coalition of most of the Democratic party with the most moderate elements of the GOP.  Until the new House is sworn in come January, there are only 193 Democrats in the House, with 218 votes needed to pass a compromise, meaning that any deal that attracted all of the Democrats would need 25 Republican votes.  Realistically, any deal that attracted significant GOP support would likely lose some Democratic support from the far-left, so a more realistic scenario might be a deal that say wins all but 20 of the Democrats and wins 45 Republican votes.  Such a deal would require some hard selling in the House by Boehner and Pelosi.

In the Senate, assuming the deal is not deficit-reducing and subject to reconciliation, which is a safe assumption since the "base case" of going over the fiscal cliff is likely far more deficit-reducing than anything that will be agreed to, you would need all the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents plus 7 Republicans to break a filibuster.  There are a lot more moderate Republicans in the Senate, so this seems a much easier goal to reach with a deal than in the House.

Of course, come January, both the Senate and the House become more Democratic, meaning a deal would require less GOP support to pass.  And with Congress headed home for the holiday and not due back until December 27th, the time window to get a deal done before the cliff goes into effect is running short.

I think at this point it is 50/50 that we get a deal before the New Year.  Unfortunately for congress and the President, the Mayan Zombie Invasion (or whatever nonsense was supposed to happen today) didn't happen, so they will have to deal with this issue.

Expect a deal of some sort early in the New Year if we don't get more 11th-hour heroics in the next week and a half.  It might look something like having rates rise on those making over $400 or $500K, having Social Security indexed to chained CPI rather than regular CPI-U, patching the AMT and repealing some of the DoD sequestration cuts.

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