the national interest

Three Reasons Why There May Be a Budget Deal, and One Reason Why There Won’t Be

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) speaks as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) listens during a Conference on the FY2014 Budget Resolution meeting November 13, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf briefed the conferees on CBO's budget and economic outlook.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, the head of the Senate Budget Committee, appear to be near a deal on the budget. It’s a very tiny deal, but still possibly too large and controversial to pass through Congress. The plan would replace a small chunk of the automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, set to take place in the next two years with a mix of more spread-out cuts and user fees, asset sales, and other sundry forms of revenue. The idea here is to replace cuts that were designed to be stupid and harmful with cuts that aren’t.

Can a deal like that actually pass? The impediment to an agreement is that Democrats believe since both parties dislike sequestration, both of them should compromise in equal measure in order to replace it. Republicans believe that, since Democrats hate it more, Democrats should have to offer unilateral concessions to replace it.

The possibility of a deal rests on Republicans facing pressure to compromise. And there are forces impelling them to do so. First, the lack of a budget deal would force Congress back into passing temporary measures to keep the government open, running the risk of another shutdown, which the party leadership deems a catastrophe. Second, Ryan is determinedly refashioning his public image, and appears to have decided that a small-scale budget deal is just the tonic: It’s small enough to avoid any policy compromises that would offend his base, and also small enough to leave the long-term budget deficit in place, and thus give him a problem to solve as a presidential candidate. But a bipartisan deal of any kind is unusual enough these days to lend him credibility as a bipartisan deal-maker and help soften his rough ideological edges.

Third, the Republican negotiating position is steadily eroding. The original design of sequestration was to impose automatic cuts that would give both parties an incentive to deal: half the cuts would go to domestic programs, which Democrats like, and half to defense, which Republicans like. Republicans persuaded their defense hawks to sit still and be quiet, in the belief that this would increase the GOP’s negotiating leverage. Last January, Boehner boasted, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal editorial page, that he had silenced pro-defense Republicans (“I got that in my back pocket”).

But pro-defense Republicans were only willing to sit quietly in Boehner’s pocket as long as they could rely on their party to ultimately cut a deal to prevent the $20 billion in defense cuts set to take place starting next month. As the deadline gets closer, dissent is popping up everywhere. Defense hawks are openly itching for a budget deal, as are the Republicans who have to actually draw up the cuts to domestic spending required by sequestration. (Those cuts include transportation, infrastructure, and other things Republicans hate much less than aid to poor people.) The Republican dissidents, combined with Democrats, form a potential majority in the House in favor of undoing sequestration.

This week, that same Journal editorial page is panicking that Republican disunity is undermining their whole strategy. “The minute the White House and Senate Democrats sense that Mr. Boehner lacks 218 votes to pass a budget,” frets an editorial, “the liberal price of a deal will soar.” (Of course, congressional Democrats are allowed to read the Journal editorial page, so it’s not clear how conservatives think they can keep their secret.) And if GOP leaders fear that anti-sequestration Republicans will bolt, they’re better off making a deal over which they have at least some say.

So that’s the case for a deal. On the other side, though, the case against a deal remains pretty compelling as well. Since sequestration is bad and painful policy by design, it ought to be simple to replace sequestration with policies that make more sense from a conservative perspective in a way that’s both budget-neutral and acceptable to Democrats. The trouble is less the substance of a potential bargain than the atmospherics. As polls have shown, Republicans in general distrust bipartisan compromise even as an abstract proposition.

The fact that Democrats hate sequestration lends it an inherent value in the Republican mind. It’s something they took from President Obama, and the more he wants it back, the more they want to keep it. Sequestration is the frozen body of Han Solo hanging on the Republicans’ palace wall.

Photo: Everett Collection

Since the main value of sequestration is that Democrats hate it, some conservatives would only be satisfied if it’s replaced with something that Democrats hate just as much. But Democrats obviously won’t go for a deal like that. So conservatives are nearly certain to object to any bipartisan deal that replaces sequestration. The question is whether Ryan’s support and the GOP leadership’s fear of more chaos and a potential shutdown provide enough momentum to make a deal worth the backlash.

Three Reasons Why There May Be a Budget Deal