by Yuval Levin
As expected, in its official score of the Reid bill in the Senate this morning, the Congressional Budget Office found the bill’s savings claims lacking in the same proportion as the original Boehner bill, and for the same reason—the bill’s use of an older baseline that had been the basis of the debt-ceiling negotiations.
Reid has argued that his bill would meet the 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to debt ceiling increase, but CBO found it $500 billion short of doing so. When the House Republicans got their score last night, they went to work rewriting their bill to make additional cuts in line with the newer baseline. Now the question is whether Reid will do the same, or whether he will give up on the 1-to-1 ratio, and thus on the possibility of getting any significant Republican votes for his bill. Democrats last night tried to suggest such a re-write was not necessary for either bill, but that case just doesn’t add up and it’s clearly being left behind. Reid’s bill doesn’t seem to have the votes the pass the Senate at this point anyhow, but Democrats hope that if the Boehner bill fails to pass the House, Reid’s bill (with the various gimmicks it uses to pump up its level of cuts, and thus allow for a debt-ceiling increase past the election) might become the only vehicle for raising the debt ceiling—that it might pass the Senate and then (with lots of Democratic votes) pass the House. If they don’t re-write their bill, that scenario becomes even less likely than it already is.
The far better, and also more likely, scenario would be for Boehner’s bill to pass the House, which would then make it reasonably likely it would also pass the Senate (perhaps slightly amended) and become the vehicle for the debt ceiling increase. It would be pretty hard for Democrats to argue that the re-written bill is somehow less acceptable than the original, since all it would do is reach the same level of cuts, in line with a more updated CBO baseline. The re-writing is thus a real opportunity for Boehner to make the bill more appealing to conservatives without losing its potential to attract senate support.
The two CBO letters—last night’s on the Boehner bill and this morning’s on the Reid bill—really help to clarify why Boehner thinks his bill can pass the Senate. Point by point, page by page, the two CBO letters show that the two bills are structurally alike, except Boehner’s avoids some familiar budget gimmicks. Given what Reid’s bill claims to do, the Democrats don’t have any real substantive case against what Boehner’s bill actually would do (as demonstrated by the absence of any argument against the bill in yesterday’s White House veto threat). They can’t argue that the date of the next election should be at the heart of our economic policy, or that savings without policy changes (like counting the Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns as budget cuts) make their bill superior.
Though far from perfect, of course, the Boehner bill would be a remarkably successful ending to this showdown for Republicans, and it looks like that’s where things just might be headed now—if it passes the House. We’ll see.