Peas in Our Time

Republican senators want to cut a debt deal, if the House can finish its tantrum.

Sen. Tom Coburn unveiling a $9-trillion deficit-reduction plan

The House of Representatives was halfway through the debate on the “Cut, Cap, and Balance Act” when Democratic contempt finally bubbled over. The microphone went to Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a former judge whose past and present legal problems are so complicated that he’s usually just referred to as “colorful.” “Do you genuinely believe this measure is going to become law?” asked Hastings.

“I genuinely hope it does,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, its sponsor. As he ticked off its benefits—spending caps, freezes, a balanced budget enshrined in the Constitution— Hastings interrupted him.

“I bet you cash money that it ain’t gonna become the law,” Hastings said. As Chaffetz started to joke about his discomfort with cash bets, a bored Hastings simply left the chamber.

Thirteen days before the U.S. Treasury says it will be unable to pay its bills, House Republicans were debating—and debating, and debating—a plan that could never pass the Senate. Meanwhile, senators were talking up an alternative debt plan, one that had been cooked up over six months by three Democrats and three Republicans. To varying degrees, all the senators were worried about the same question: What were they supposed to do about the House?

On Tuesday, the two chambers felt impossibly far apart. The events in either house might as well have been happening in different screenplays. The Senate’s morning began when Tom Coburn, the conservative who’d left the alternate-budget-drafting Gang of Six, made a triumphant return. He signed back up with the Gang and briefed 50 senators on what they’d come up with. Senators leaving the meeting sounded like pilgrims returning from Lourdes. “We went from a gang of six to a mob of 60!” beamed Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. The president all but endorsed the plan thereafter.

It was difficult to find senators who weren’t optimistic. What was in the plan? It was hard to say. The Gang would cut $3.7 trillion over the long term by reforming entitlements and slashing discretionary spending. What sort of slashing could we look forward to? That would be left largely up to committees. The Gang would end the alternative minimum tax and flatten the tax code—fewer breaks, lower rates, but with the goal of increasing revenue.

Senators loved it. “This is an achievement of statesmanship,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said. “We ought to declare victory, get it ready to vote on, and try to form some sort of supermajority critical mass and save the day.”

The Gang’s plan looked like it bumped up against another Republican plan. For weeks, Republicans in both houses had been coalescing around the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill. When they put their names on it, they’d pledged not to raise the debt ceiling without those specific cuts and caps, and without the passage of a balanced budget amendment. I asked Sen. Lamar Alexander, who’s both in the Republican leadership and a co-sponsor of the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill, how he could support the Gang’s plan, too.

“Look, I’m going to support any serious proposal that has a real chance of stopping Washington from spending money we don’t have,” he explained. “I’m a co-sponsor of the balanced budget amendment. I’m a co-sponsor of Cut, Cap, and Balance. I support the Gang of Six proposal. I’m a co-sponsor of Sen. Bob Corker’s spending cap. In the Senate, you need 60 votes to get anything accomplished, and here you have six senators who’ve worked for six months and come up with a recommendation.”

So it was settled—except that it wasn’t. In the House, the parade of freshman Republicans continued, sparring with a league of bored Democrats and playing a game of How Many Talking Points Can I Stuff Inside This Sentence? The Democratic winner of that game might have been Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who opened with this line: “This is an ideologically extreme measure that will end Medicare as we know it, and will preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.”

On the Republican side, some members realized that they could distinguish themselves if they captured their arguments in the form of colorful charts. The semi-official “Cut, Cap, Balance” logo was a pie chart with each of those three words occupying a slice of the pie. Rep. Jack Kingston showed his peers the chart, then flipped it around to reveal a blank white space.

“Here’s the president’s plan!” said Kingston. He grabbed a pen, scrawled the word “speeches,” and drew a final squiggly flourish underneath it. Not long after that, Rep. Bill Flores, R-Tex., tried to outdo him with a horrifying bizarro version of the CCB logo—all red, with pie pieces describing the Obama plan as “tax, spend, regulate.”

Yet on Tuesday, it looked like Obama would endorse a realistic plan, the Gang’s plan, while the GOP’s conservatives passed their symbolic plan. It’s frustrating for the Tea Party caucus. They’ve shifted the conversation—a Democratic president is going to have to agree to spending cuts in the year before an election—but again and again, they’ve found themselves in the position of making bold speeches, getting ignored, and having to vote on something that was agreed upon by a few people in some other room. It happened with the “repeal” of health care reform. It happened with the continuing resolution. Every time, there’s more bad faith, and a better-organized push in the House, but winning arguments and actually winning aren’t the same thing.

As Republican senators girded for the deal, they tested out the arguments they’d make to their House colleagues.

“You have to decide who you have confidence in,” said Wicker. “I have confidence in Douglas Holtz-Eakin. I have confidence in people who’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with us for decades, like Larry Kudlow. They say that it’s not worth risking [default on] Aug. 3. You have to ask yourself: Have Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo and Saxby Chambliss sold us out?”

What about those Republicans who are pledging not to raise the debt limit at all? “The people who said they’d vote against raising the debt ceiling took themselves out of the debate.”