The bipartisan deal announced by House Speaker John Boehner appears to be a win-win-win – for the White House, Republicans, and Democrats.
The two-year pact not only averts a federal debt default next week, but also sidesteps a potential government shutdown in December.
It beefs up both defense and nondefense spending. It heads off deep cuts in Social Security disability payments. And it prevents a significant increase in certain Medicare payments (Part B) for seniors.
So then why is the presumed next speaker, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, expressing such anger about it? Also, why are political observers rather downcast as well?
Much of it has to do with the way the deal was put together – highly dependent on one man who is leaving the scene and highly reliant on a secretive negotiating process involving only a few key people and their staffs. Such a closed-door process is how Congress has gotten things done for decades. But the hard-line House Freedom Caucus has been demanding a different way – a bottom-up approach, which could actually complicate dealmaking for a future Speaker Ryan.
Political observers have not trumpeted the deal because they see it as a one-off solution, created by Speaker Boehner’s pending exit. That coming departure has freed him up to negotiate directly with Democrats in Congress and with President Obama, unconcerned about another eruption on his right flank from the Freedom Caucus.
“This is not a good sign for the budget process. The only way we got this done is for a speaker to resign. Is that what it's going to take to get a deal the next time?” asks Stan Collender, a federal budget expert in Washington.
Ryan sides with his hard-liners
As for Representative Ryan, he took issue, at least publicly, with the process surrounding the deal. Legislation for it was filed very late on Monday night, and it will hit the House floor for approval on Wednesday. It’s expected to pass with heavy support from Democrats. Then it will head to the Senate, whose Republican and Democratic leaders were also in on the private negotiations.
“I think the process stinks,” Ryan said Tuesday morning.
“This is not the way to do the people's business,” he said. “We are up against a deadline – that's unfortunate.... As a conference, we should've been meeting months ago to discuss these things to have a unified strategy going forward.”
That should be music to the Freedom Caucus’s ears, and Ryan would need that group’s support as speaker.
The nearly 40 Freedom Caucus members, many of whom came to Congress on the tea party wave of 2010 or after, want to devolve power from the speaker’s office. Their preferred approach would empower committees, and themselves, to a much greater extent.
“Putting together a very complex deal and giving members less than 48 hours to read it, study it, and vote on it with virtually no input – it’s about as bad as the process gets around here,” said Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana, a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Ryan was apparently not involved in the talks. That absolves him from the deal – which has elements of one he negotiated with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to resolve a budget crisis just two years ago.
“He wasn’t down there. He wasn’t even invited. He’s been trying to figure out if he’s going to be speaker this week, not if he’s cutting a debt ceiling deal,” said Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina, sticking up for Ryan. “We believe him” when he says he’s frustrated by the process.
Representative Mulvaney acknowledges that deals like this, in the end, have to be negotiated by the key players on both sides. It’s not possible for all 247 Republican members to be negotiators. The problem for him was that the chief negotiator was someone who is on his way out – someone whom the right wing had pushed out the door.
Does the deal help Ryan?
Mulvaney and other Freedom Caucus members have big problems with the deal itself, not just how it was put together. They don’t like that it busts budget caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act by $80 billion, even as it raises the current $1.8 trillion debt ceiling.
“That’s two strikes, and there are plenty of other third strikes in there,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas, another Freedom Caucus member. One of them is a change that he says would “destroy” crop insurance, of vital interest to his state.
The budget increases are being offset by cuts elsewhere, including small-scale reforms to Social Security and Medicare – long sought by Republicans. But Representative Huelskamp is skeptical about whether those reforms will ever pay off, while Mulvaney says Boehner is “merely moving the deck chairs.”
Some observers say that even by “cleaning out the barn” for his successor, Boehner hasn’t really made it easier on Ryan. The Freedom Caucus is even angrier at how this deal was handled, and it will insist that Ryan not follow such secret, last-minute negotiating.
“The Freedom Caucus will not make it any easier for Paul Ryan to make similar concessions once he is in power,” writes Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, in an e-mail to the Monitor. "Without the crisis atmosphere that results from budgetary differences, there will in many ways be more room for the parties to fight over issues."
“Paul is going to be in better shape than he would have been because a lot of the overly contentious issues will be off the table,” says Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, a moderate, in an interview. “He’ll be able to actually start working toward governing as opposed to going from crisis to crisis.”
Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.