The Obama administration said Tuesday it “would not oppose” a short-term handling of the federal debt ceiling. That puts Senate Democrats in a tough spot: They’ve skipped a budget each of the past three years so as to shield vulnerable members from tough votes on spending priorities. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York recently said Democrats were planning to draft a budget this year, but neither majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada nor Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D) of Washington has made a similar commitment.
While the White House called the GOP’s “no budget, no pay” requirement an “unnecessary complication,” its fate in the Senate is up to Senator Murray, Senator Reid said Tuesday.
For Democrats, the risk of going along with the GOP is that they'll be drawn into a fiscal battle that could trip up other items on their agenda, from immigration reform to changes to the nation’s gun laws.
“That’s the [Republicans'] delay strategy,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. The Republicans "don’t have to make a controversial decision right now and they extend how long the budget fights go on. That’s the center of their strategy.... If [the two sides] had a big showdown, and they make some deal, the issue diminishes in importance.”
But the 90-day gambit holds some peril for the GOP, as well. GOP fiscal hawks – led by the loudest and largest conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) – believe that they have extracted significant promises from party leaders for going along with the plan, even though it has none of the immediate spending cuts or budget reforms that they want.
First, they say leadership has committed to writing a House budget proposal that will lead to a balanced budget in 10 years. That’s a stark departure from Republican budget proposals of the past. While the budget backed by the RSC in 2012 achieved balance in only seven years, that proposal came up well short of support for passage among Republicans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s final budget, which passed the House, came to balance nearly three decades into the future.
Spending cuts of that magnitude would come with significant political risk to the party. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas, a critic of the GOP leadership who lost his committee assignments in a spat of palace intrigue, even raised the possibility on Tuesday of cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits for those over 55 years of age. That's something that even Representative Ryan was unwilling to broach in his most recent budget.