I’m not sure House Republicans realized how large an error they made by kidnapping and then releasing the debt limit earlier this year. By admitting their bluff, they effectively confessed to having misled conservative members, and those members needed to be mollified.
That created a new problem: How could they appease conservatives while lacking the power to satisfy any of their substantive demands? So they offered up grandiose symbolism: A raincheck on the brinksmanship (the current fight over the sequester) and a promise to pass a budget that would wipe out the deficit in 10 years if enacted.
But it’s not clear that they counted their votes, or considered the budget math when they made that promise.
“We are saying a 10-year balance — that’s tougher than the last [Paul] Ryan budget,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), a former Budget Committee member told Politico.
“There could be a significant number of Republicans that say, ‘I’m not going there because it would be too dramatic.’ I have said to my constituents, nobody is talking about changing Social Security and Medicare if you’re 55 years or over.’ I’ve been selling it for three or four years that way. So have many other members. Well, to balance in 10, that 55 years is going to move up to 58, 59, 60. It makes us look like we’re going back on what we were telling people when we were trying to sell this.
We haven’t seen Ryan’s latest budget, so we don’t know what precise ratio of funny math and concessions to reality he’ll use to make the numbers work. And until he’s written it he won’t offer many hints.
But we do know a couple things. First, given Republicans’ famous preference for never increasing taxes or cutting defense spending, we know that it’s probably impossible for them to draft a budget that balances in 10 years without eating into entitlement benefits for people older than 55. Second, per above, we know that GOP leaders promised conservatives a budget that balances over 10 years to win their support for increasing the debt limit. So either Ryan will produce a budget that relies on sleight of hand more than his previous budgets did, or he’ll have to admit that the GOP’s pledge to leave retirement programs untouched for people over 55 was neither sincere nor sustainable.
As Simpson’s quote suggests, that’ll make it harder for Republicans to pass a budget at all; and if they do, it’ll come at a potentially enormous cost with their voting base.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.