Suddenly, Democrats Seem Intransigent in Budget Showdown

By seeking to delay rather than repeal the president’s health law, opposition Republicans seem reasonable.

Republican House speaker John Boehner addresses members of Congress in Washington DC, January 3
Republican House speaker John Boehner addresses members of Congress in Washington DC, January 3 (Bryant Avondoglio)

By demanding a one year delay in the implementation of President Barack Obama’s health-care law in exchange for their support on a budget, Republicans have shifted roles in Washington. Now they look willing to compromise while Democrats can be blamed when the government shuts down.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, where they are in the majority, voted early on Sunday to fund the government beyond Monday’s deadline when it is due to run out of money. They conditioned their support for a temporary spending measure on postponing the implementation of the health-care overhaul they describe as “Obamacare” until 2014 — when they hope to retake the Senate in that year’s congressional elections.

The vote followed one earlier in the week when Republicans demanded the repeal of the president’s health law altogether. That measure was predictably defeated in the Senate where Obama’s own Democrats are in the majority. The body’s leader, Harry Reid, reiterated Sunday afternoon that even a delay was unacceptable. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one,” he complained. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that delays his health-care reforms.

Yet Democrats have offered no compromises of their own, arguing, as House leader Nancy Pelosi did on CNN’s State of the Union television program Sunday, “There’s no more cuts to make.”

Without either deeper spending cuts or more tax increases, however — Republicans agreed to let taxes on the wealthy go up earlier this year — the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the government will have to borrow virtually every year between now and 2038 when it expects the national debt to grow larger than the United States’ annual economic output for the first time since World War II. Especially entitlement programs such as Medicaid, which finances health care for the poor, Medicare, which pays health care for seniors, and Social Security, America’s pension fund, are gradually becoming unaffordable, crowding out other spending on defense, education and infrastructure — which are all more important for economic growth.

The Democrats are similarly uncompromising in what will be the next fiscal battle: a far more consequential bill to raise the nation’s debt limit. President Obama demands a “clean” increase in the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling next month, even if he has negotiated with opposition Republicans before about reducing deficits in exchange for their votes.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling would force the United States to default on some of its debt obligations, possibly triggering a global financial crisis.

When Republicans last tried to leverage their support for raising the debt limit on austerity measures, a “grand bargain” on entitlement and tax reform seemed possible — until President Obama demanded an additional $400 billion worth of revenue increases on top of the $800 billion that had already been committed by the Republican leader in Congress, John Boehner.

Boehner, who was resisted by his own conference at the time for considering tax hikes at all, is unlikely to try again.

When the grand bargain fell apart, the parties agreed to form a special congressional committee to find some $1.5 trillion in long-term spending reductions. Democratic and Republican members failed to reach an agreement, however, triggering $85 billion in automatic budget cuts this year — which have also affected the military.

Democrats can no longer claim Republicans are so intransigent they won’t raise any taxes. They agreed in January to what the Congressional Budget Office estimates will amount to $620 billion in extra revenue over the next ten years. Nor can they claim Republicans are willing to let the government shut down over their opposition to Obamacare. That may be true for some but not the party as a whole. The party as a whole at least seems committed to keeping the government running and the debt under control.

The president, by contrast, admitted earlier this year that he does not intend to balance the budget for another decade, saying, “We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt.” Many Americans disagree.