Are Democrats Demanding Their Own Ransom Now?

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Photo: Andrew Burton/2013 Getty Images

The news of the weekend is that Democrats, feeling their oats in the face of collapsing Republican polls, have beaten back Republican extortion and begun issuing demands of their own. The narrative has appeared everywhere. (Sample report, courtesy of the Washington Post: “Democrats are now on the offensive and seeking to undo what has become a cherished prize for the GOP: deep agency spending cuts known as the sequester.”) Yet it’s not clear this "news" is actually, you know, true.

The details of the negotiations remain hazy. The apparent source of this belief that Democrats have turned the table is that they are asking for a shorter continuing resolution to reopen the government than Republicans prefer. That way, when it expires, they can negotiate domestic appropriations rather than implement the cuts required under sequestration. I have seen no reports indicating Democrats have actually demanded higher levels of domestic spending. Indeed, Democrats hotly deny that they are asking for higher spending levels, and note that their previous offers remain on the table. Again, the state of negotiating play has grown so hazy that there are no firm reports available about either party’s negotiating position.

So why has this new analysis suddenly taken hold? I have a completely unsubstantiated hypothesis. What if this narrative is spin by pragmatic Republicans to urge conservatives to accept a deal? If I’m right, pragmatic Republicans have recognized that Democrats are truly determined to end the practice of debt-ceiling extortion once and for all. (Over the weekend, moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins floated a plan to lift the debt ceiling with a small-ish ransom, and Senate Democrats shot it down.)

So now pragmatic Republicans realize their best option is to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling with no ransom for their party. How to sell this treasonous surrender to the suspicious base? Make conservatives believe they have something to lose. Democrats are demanding spending hikes. That way, conservatives can beat back the spending demands and show that they have “won” something.

It’s noteworthy that the loudest cries against the nefarious Democratic big spenders have come from the most pragmatic Republicans. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Bob Corker, three of the Republicans most eager to strike a deal, have led the charge in warning about breaking sequestration. “The way the budget showdown is going, Democrats may soon require the Republicans to pay ransom before they’ll the GOP to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling,” warned The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which has sharply opposed both the shutdown and the debt-ceiling ransom.

If I’m right about this, it would be in the interest of both sides of the negotiating table to float this spin. Both Democrats and Republicans who want to end the shutdown and avoid default need to change the contours of what’s defined as a compromise from “halfway between a huge ransom and no ransom” to “between a Republican ransom and a Democratic ransom.” This requires creating the perception of a Democratic ransom — a perception that is in the interest of both parties to maintain.

The perception of such a ransom would allow a deal to do the only things on which there is real common ground in both chambers of Congress and the White House: stop a shutdown that’s threatening the Republican brand and avoid a crisis to the world economy.