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Six ways to yes: Ending the stalemate over shutdown, debt ceiling

WASHINGTON DC - OCTOBER 07:  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for work U.S. Capitol October 7 2013 WashingtDC.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 07: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for work at the U.S. Capitol, October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Democrats and Republicans are still at a stalemate on funding for the federal government as the shut down goes into seventh day. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Updated: November 9, 2013 6:29AM



WASHINGTON — The U.S. is heading toward a first-ever default, and much of the federal government remains closed as Congress on Monday made no progress on resolving the two crises.

The political focus is shifting from the GOP linking federal government funding to derailing Obamacare — triggering the shutdown a week ago — to a bigger priority, the looming Oct. 17 deadline to raise the debt ceiling or risk worldwide economic turmoil.

The prospect of a default could be the linchpin to breaking the impasse over the shutdown.

“I think the debt ceiling leads to the endgame,” said Ron Bonjean, a onetime communications chief for former House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.)

Almost every scenario revolves around House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and what he will agree to support. There are no easy paths out of this stalemate. But there are scenarios to break the deadlock and bring these twin episodes of government dysfunction to an end. At least for a while.

Here are six ways to yes, with varying degrees of likely success:

1. A multipart comprehensive package deal. First would come up-or-down House votes to raise the debt ceiling and fund the federal government — with no strings attached. This is face-saving for President Barack Obama, who has vowed not to negotiate.

Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could work out the number of Republicans needed to vote yes on the measure in advance.

Under this script, “Not one more member than is necessary would have to vote for it,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution and founding director of its Center for Effective Public Management.

However, in exchange — and in a highly choreographed sequence of subsequent votes, starting in the Senate — Democrats would make concessions, letting Republicans claim victories.

The concession menu includes several items: repeal of a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices imposed as part of the Obamacare health law, which many Democrats already support; a cost-of-living trim on Social Security, which would inflame progressive Democrats, and shaving the corporate tax rate. Obama proposed the corporate tax cut last July, in a trade-off for GOP pledges to invest in middle-class job creation.

Clearly all of this involves Obama negotiating — just indirectly. Anyway, as Bonjean noted when we talked, history will not remember Obama blinked over negotiating a debt-limit deal. Allowing a world economic collapse over the debt limit — that’s a permanent stain on the Obama legacy.

PROBABILITY: HIGH

2. Up-or-down stopgap debt-ceiling and shutdown votes not linked to other deals. Boehner made a strategic error on Sunday, when he said he didn’t have the votes to pass a debt-ceiling increase in the House. What he probably meant to say is he did not have the majority of GOP votes. But these measures could pass with mainly Democratic votes.

All 200 Democrats would vote yes; it would take just a handful of the 232 Republicans to get to the 217 needed for passage. (The number to pass is usually 218, but there are three vacancies in the House, bringing the total down.)

Obama on Monday dared Boehner to call the vote. “If Republicans and Speaker Boehner are saying there are not enough votes, then they should prove it. Let the bill go to the floor, and let’s see what happens,” Obama said.

This scenario is very risky for Boehner because of the almost-certain backlash he will get from House Republicans. His ability to lead will be diminished and his chances of maintaining his role as GOP speaker after the 2014 elections would be near zero.

PROBABILITY: LOW

3. Executing a “discharge petition” for an up-or-down shutdown vote, with no strings attached. House Democrats started moving on this rarely used procedure on Oct. 4. There are many difficult hurdles to clear.

Boiled down, a discharge petition works like this: If 217 members sign a petition, Boehner cannot block a floor vote. Under House rules, the first day members could sign is Saturday, Oct. 12.

The names of the signers are public. As noted, all 200 Democrats will sign. While there are about two dozen or so Republicans who are in favor of a “clean” up-or-down vote on ending the shutdown to pass a measure on the backs of Democrats — these members don’t want to stick it to Boehner by signing a discharge petition

PROBABILITY: LOW

4. A short-term debt-ceiling extension. Short could be as little as two weeks, as suggested Monday by National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday the administration was looking for a year but made it clear that less would be accepted. “We think that the Congress ought to raise the debt ceiling without drama or delay. If they do that, that’s a great thing. It’s up to them to set the duration of that,” he said.

If all else fails, Congress is practiced at kicking the can down the road.

PROBABILITY: VERY HIGH

5. A short-term resolution to reopen government while negotations on broader, non-Obamacare related issues take place. Lost in the uproar over the shutdown is that the measures the House and Senate were debating at the end of the Sept. 30 fiscal year were only to fund the federal government through mid-November or mid-December.

PROBABILITY: MEDIUM HIGH

6. Create another “Supercommittee” to drive a “Grand Bargain.” The 2011 fight to lift the debt ceiling spawned a 12-member House-Senate “Supercommittee,” composed of six Republicans and six Democrats. However, the panel never forged an agreement, which led to the sequester — the forced spending levels under which the federal government operated until the shutdown.

Under this scenario, the House and Senate pass stopgap measures to reopen government and raise the debt ceiling. Part of the deal would be starting a process to set up another Supercommittee with a deadline — say by Christmas — to address long-term debt and deficit issues. Implicit in this look at revenues and spending would be a retooling of some aspects of the Obamacare law.

This could be face-saving for both sides.

PROBABILITY: MEDIUM

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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