"The only way we can get the level of cuts we need is that to cut entitlements, or slow the increase in spending for entitlements," explained Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La. "There's just not enough time to get an entitlement plan. We have one. It's the Ryan budget. But Democrats wouldn't take it up. So under this plan, the first tranche of the debt limit takes us to February, and then we get to the commission. It's not to mess up the president. It's to get the cuts."
Democrats would love to avoid this. They thought they had. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had called the debt crisis the best chance in ages for entitlement cuts, but it hadn't happened. As far as Democrats knew, if "grand bargain" negotiations succeeded, the debt deal would have meant raising the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67. But now the most likely legislative solution to the crisis involves another hostage negotiation in 2012. Even moderate Republicans support it.
"You've got to make sure [the vote on the committee recommendations] happens," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in a short hallway conversation. She's one of the only Republicans who hasn't ruled out a vote on the Reid plan, but she wants this trigger. "In the Reid plan, there are no assurances—there's no specificity of what the cuts are, no guarantee they occur. In the Boehner plan, there is a guarantee. I would have preferred something different, but that's where we are."
Democrats want to stop this. There's one argument against it that they're really comfortable making: Multiple debt-limit votes will create more uncertainty. Who wants to go through this crisis again? The answer: Republicans.
"Going through this experience means we'll probably be better at it the next time," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., dismissing the idea that markets will panic at another multi-stage debt showdown. "I think my Democratic friends are afraid of that because they're going to lose the first stage and they're going to lose the second."