What to do about the debt ceiling? An idea is circulating among Senate Republicans that has a real chance of compelling Democrats in Washington to confront – or at least take public responsibility for – outsized federal spending.
The idea originated with Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, and was first reported yesterday by Byron York in the Washington Examiner (http://washingtonexaminer.com/article/2517837#.UOv-L7tjJbw). It is to stop insisting on specific spending cuts in return for the GOP House agreeing to the next boost in the limit on federal indebtedness. Instead Congressional Republicans would demand something much simpler – a budget.
Under control of the Democrats since two years before President Obama took office, the Senate has not passed a budget since 2009. Senate majority leader Harry Reid won’t even allow a budget to be brought to the floor for debate and a vote. This has allowed the Democrats to keep the levels of Obama administration spending and borrowing from becoming a focus of the news. And it has kept go-along-to-get-along spending votes from becoming political problems for Democrat senators, simply by no longer having them.
Evading political responsibility has enabled the president and his Congressional Democrat allies to refuse to engage in any way on spending reductions. The refusal is extreme. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moore (http://tinyurl.com/aqbr92u) published on Saturday, House Speaker John Boehner reported of the fiscal cliff talks, “At one point several weeks ago, the president said to me, ‘We don’t have a spending problem'” — this in yet another year of spending at twenty-five percent of GDP, before this presidency a level unheard of in the post-World War II era. Meanwhile Mr. Obama’s mainstream media allies pummel Republicans as obstructers when the GOP tries to use debt ceilings or fiscal cliff talks to force some, any concession on spending. Polls reflect that the Congressional GOP is playing a no-win game, as the game is framed today.
So Senator Sessions proposes to change the game by clarifying the stakes. He would trade a GOP House green light on a higher debt ceiling for a Democrat commitment that the Senate take up and pass a budget by a date certain this year. If the Democrats propose in that budget to buy the moon, fine. Just lay it out on paper as a plan and put it to a vote.
The demand would have obvious justice on its side. The Democrats would be hard pressed to justify saying no, though undoubtedly they would. Even so, the Sessions’ idea would focus discussion, if on no other question, on, what are the Democrats hiding?
The big question right now is, if Harry Reid were to agree to the deal, once the debt ceiling had been increased, wouldn’t he say something on the order of, “Oops, you must have misunderstood what I said,” and back out. But even that would help clarify for the public who stands for what.
The point is that that the Session’s idea fits the place in which Congressional Republicans find themselves. The Democrats won the White House and the Senate last year, the GOP only the House. The House is not nothing, but it is not everything either. Advocates of spending and entitlement control – and at this point in Congress that would mean only Republicans — need greater support from public opinion, if they are to make any serious progress before the next election. Which means they must simplify, clarify and focus the issue.
What will be the first sign of success? There are surely Senate Democrats from conservative states, particularly ones up in 2014, who could be split from Reid and the White House. Indications of wavering in those ranks will be the first and essential marks of progress.
Conservatives of late have been angry with the GOP House leadership for the 40 to one ($40 of tax increase to one dollar of spending cut) fiscal cliff deal. But instead of more anger, we need better strategy. Senator Session’s smart idea may show the way.