So the “large deal” debt talks have once again broken off in acrimony, with each side pointing fingers, leaving the United States perilously close to a sovereign debt default. So what happened? Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, are accusing the President of “moving the goalposts” by insisting on an additional $400 billion in “revenues” beyond what the Speaker had agreed to, which was $800 billion. The Speaker and Republicans are saying that the President moved the revenue target after meeting with Congressional Democrats, who raised holy hell about the entitlement modifications, forcing the President to “move the goalposts” on taxes. Is that what happened? It looks to me like the Republicans might have a point on the later introduction of the $400 billion. Was it a cynical ploy on the President’s part, or were there other factors that contributed?
The President has responded by saying that the extra $400 billion was introduced, not as an ultimatum, but as part of an ongoing negotiation. In his presentation the President pointed to the fact that his revenue request was less than the number that the “gang of six” had presented in their plan. No doubt that there were other issues, such as what the penalties for Congressional non-action would be (triggers), but the main cited impediment by Republicans has been the additional $400 billion in taxes.
I have attached a clip of Lawrence O’Donnell crediting the President with snookering the Republicans by agreeing to deep spending cuts while attaching what he knew to be revenue targets that Speaker Boehner could not agree to. O’Donnell falls into the “move the goalpost” camp, crediting the President with “looking reasonable” while striving to derail any deal that contained real spending cuts. O’Donnell makes some sense, but I am not yet convinced. Certainly the Republican’s have entered negotiations with the President severely handicapped by the upfront restrictions on their position that they have publicly laid out. It is never a good idea as a negotiator to totally box yourself in and let the other side know the true parameters of what can be bargained. To do so is to give away much of your ability to bargain, and to test the willingness of the other side to move. The President has had a huge advantage over Boehner from the start, and that is the advantage O’Donnell thinks the President took advantage of. But could the President have had another reason to have requested another $400 billion in revenue?
It appears clear that Boehner, operating as the head of a caucus that has many members who want to see default, was going to have trouble producing enough Republican votes to push through an increase in the debt ceiling with $800 billion in new revenues. Without a doubt Boehner was going to have to rely on Nancy Pelosi to deliver a big bloc of Democratic votes for passage of the potential compromise. With Boehner seeing Republican support peeling away by the hour his reliance on the President and Pelosi certainly might have led the President to “move the goalposts” in order to get Boehner a bloc of Democrats in the House. You ask the President and Nancy Pelosi to deliver Democratic votes, and then you complain that they tell you what that might take? It was $400 billion, Mr. Speaker. No question that the Speaker was in a precarious position. If he helped push through a proposal that could not draw majority Republican support in the House, and passed with Democratic support making the difference he would have been under major siege politically from key Republican constituencies. So the Speaker has fallen back on the Denny Hastert formula, which says that a bill will not be moved to the floor without majority Republican support. But that caucus will not agree to anything that has compromise, with some saying that no bill raising the debt ceiling can be moved.
So to sum up the Speaker is in a tough spot, unable to move a bill through the House without major Democratic support. But he cannot agree to the deal that will draw that support, and has allowed his caucus to severely limit his room to maneuver. The President has him in a box. I do agree with O’Donnell that the President has easily bested Boehner and Cantor in this duel, with Republicans now staring out at the abyss. An abyss that they have created on their own.