Majority Leader Harry Reid moved the goal posts. On Saturday, when Republican Senate negotiators came to work, they thought they were close to a deal with Democrats based on the proposal offered by Republican Sen. Susan Collins. The government would be reopened for six months in exchange for a delay of the medical device tax that helps fund Obamacare, flexibility in managing sequestration cuts, and new requirements to verify income for those entering the federal exchanges as a part of the Affordable Care Act. But the Senate Democratic leader didn't like the six-month date, so he called it off.
Why did Reid back out? The agreement would have made it harder for Democrats to negotiate changes to the next round of sequestration cuts, something they have sought as part of a larger budget deal. If Reid was moving the goal posts, it's because he—or some of the Democrats negotiating with Collins—temporarily forgot where he'd put them.
It has always been a Democratic goal to wipe out the new round of sequestration cuts that kick in next January. It was something they were hoping to negotiate once the government shutdown ended and all the lights were turned back on. It was on the Democratic wish-list, just as entitlement and tax reform are on the GOP list. What elevated the issue into the center of the debate this weekend was the six-month timeline in Collins’ proposal. Under that agreement, which Collins worked on with Democratic senators, the government would be kept open until March. That seems reasonable, given how long it will take negotiators to wrangle with each other in the post-shutdown negotiations. But that also means that new sequestration cuts scheduled to start in January would kick in while the negotiations were ongoing. Democrats worry that if they allow them to take effect they won't be able to negotiate for their removal.
Democrats say they aren't dictating how the future sequestration cuts will be replaced, just that they want to have a chance to negotiate how to replace them. "Republicans want to do it with entitlement cuts," said Sen. Chuck Schumer on Face the Nation. "Democrats want to do it with a mix of mandatory cuts, some entitlements and revenues. And so how do you overcome that dilemma? We're not going to overcome it in the next day or two. But if we were to open up the government for a period of time that concluded before the sequester took place, which is Jan. 15, we could have a whole bunch of discussions."
This disagreement about dates is what caused the six Democrats working with Collins to say that they did not support her final offer. Some Republicans have claimed that the Democrats are trying to change the Budget Control Act, which is the law of the land. They are, but not as a condition of ending the partial shutdown or lifting the debt ceiling. That's an important distinction because actually asking to change the budget law now would be identical to the GOP requesting to lock in specific entitlement changes as a condition of lifting the debt ceiling or funding the government. The administration and Democrats have said that linking those issues to the current crisis is out of bounds.
As a negotiating posture however, Democrats have no problem letting Republicans charge that Reid spent the weekend attempting to undo the Budget Control Act. When the final agreement includes no such thing, Republicans will be able to claim that they thwarted Reid’s plan.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Reid should just take yes for an answer, but Reid thinks he has enough leverage to hold steady and not deal away future discussions on the sequestration cuts. Democrats say, “Why should we diminish our right to negotiate in the future over something they don't like, just because Ted Cruz and some House Republicans created a crisis?” This is the White House’s position, too. When asked if they were overplaying their hand, an administration official pointed to this weekend’s rallies with Cruz and Sarah Palin. The demonstrations on the mall were keeping the Tea Party brand in the news, which Democrats believe hamper those lawmakers who are trying to ameliorate the Tea Party inspired budget detour over Obamacare.
So now Reid and McConnell will have a debate about dates. It's not an impossible divide. Reid would like the government to stay open for a shorter period of time and the debt ceiling lifted for a longer period. McConnell would like something closer to the opposite. Those are not differences big enough to cause a breach of the debt limit and suggest that, despite the weekend hiccup, the Senate will get its act together. After this brief Senate interlude, we'll be focused on the House again. House Speaker John Boehner will have to decide what bill he brings to the floor and how many Democrats he'll need to pass it. Will he be able to get a majority of Republicans, as he did during the debt limit votes of 2011 and early 2013? The clock is ticking.