When President Obama met with Senate Democrats last week to discuss their strategy on the debt-limit negotiations, he reportedly advised them “not to do what Republicans are doing” and to avoid any firm positions regarding the parameters of an eventual deal. In other words, “no drawing lines in the sand.”
And just as well, because even if Senate Democrats were so inclined, they wouldn’t have the slightest clue where to start drawing. Much hay has been made of tensions within the GOP on House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s (R., Wis.) bold plan to reform Medicare. Of course, that is precisely the narrative that the Left is trying to promulgate. In reality, Republicans are vastly more united than Democrats, whose disarray at this point would be comical if the problems facing our country were not so great.
First and foremost, when it comes to the budget, the Republican majority in the House is firmly on the record regarding its position (the Ryan budget). Democrats, on the other hand, have now gone 750 days without passing a budget in the Senate, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), the budget-committee chairman, has remained steadfastly aloof regarding his plans to move forward. Conrad’s hesitance should become even more glaringly obvious now that his go-to excuse — the ongoing nature of the so-called Gang of Six negotiations — has been rendered inoperative following Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R., Okla.) decision to “take a break” from the talks.
Conrad served on President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission and has spoken out frequently on the need for urgent action to address the debt problem. But when Conrad presented his initial budget proposal at a Democratic caucus meeting several weeks ago, he was all but chased out of the room by party leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) warned members not to “draw lines” by signing on to any budget plan.
Conrad has since revised his proposal to include a 1-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases — a total tax hike of at least $2 trillion over the next ten years — reportedly in an effort to win the vote of Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), an avowed socialist and member of the budget committee. That is a far cry from the 3-to-1 ratio that Conrad supported as a member of the deficit commission, and a blatant sign that Conrad does not intend to win any Republican support.
Nor does it appear that Democratic leaders expect, or even care about, the support of party moderates, many of whom are facing tough reelection fights in 2012. Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), for example, has expressed concern about a deficit-reduction plan that relies too heavily on tax increases. “I’m only focused on cuts, not on raising taxes,” Nelson told reporters recently. “If we start getting our attention over to raising taxes, I can assure you that many of my colleagues are going to be less interested in cuts.”
And despite his advice to Democrats, President Obama had no qualms about drawing his own line in the sand, rejecting the idea of a global spending cap championed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.); McCaskill has even cosponsored legislation that would impose such caps. Both are top GOP targets in 2012. Additionally, Reid recently slammed an amendment proposed by another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, as “unfair to small businesses.”
Republicans argue that Democratic dysfunction can be attributed to the panic that often sets in when one side realizes it is losing the fight. Basically, Democrats are still struggling to reconcile the public’s demand for spending restraint — voiced emphatically in the 2010 midterms — with their intractable aversion to the idea. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, sums up their dilemma as follows: “They cannot bring forth a budget their members support that the American people will support, and they understand that. . . . And they’ve got a big problem.”
Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) told reporters that Democratic leaders do not want to finish the budget process out of fear that it could open the door to “budget reconciliation,” a provision that would allow the Senate to forgo the usual 60-vote requirement and pass a budget by simple majority. “The 51 votes are actually on our side of the issue, not theirs,” Kirk said. “The Conrad budget is a political document. While the country is moving right, it moves left.”
“The momentum is absolutely on our side,” a senior GOP aide tells National Review Online. Indeed, even Nancy Pelosi is now saying that entitlements should be on the table when it comes to deficit reduction, whereas GOP leaders continue to hold firm against raising taxes.
As such, Democrats’ only coherent strategy so far has been to demagogue the GOP, namely over its support of the Medicare reforms included in the Ryan budget — for example, by claiming seniors will “die sooner” under the Republican plan, or comparing Paul Ryan to Hurricane Katrina.
And they show no signs of abandoning that strategy any time soon. In a telling display of how seriously Democrats are taking this debate, Harry Reid, when asked why Democrats had not yet produced a budget, explained that he planned to vote on one shortly — the Ryan budget, in an act of pure political theater, the goal being to get GOP senators on record “voting to end Medicare,” which is sure to a be a ubiquitous Democratic refrain by the time 2012 rolls around.
That’s right. The first action taken by Senate Democrats on a budget to address what former Clinton chief of staff and deficit-commission co-chair Erskine Bowles called “the most predictable economic crisis in history” will be a political “show vote” on a Republican budget that goes to great lengths to address said crisis. If the Democrats’ fiscal unseriousness had been in question before, it ought not be any longer.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.