Congress Enters Kabuki Theatre Phase of Debt Ceiling Debate

Democrats are hoping that the GOP may have made another unforced error with latest spending bill.

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With roughly two weeks left until, by the Treasury Department's estimation, the United States defaults on its debt, the U.S. Congress is finally getting down to the serious business of Kabuki theatrics.

In the next bit of drama for the debt ceiling negotiations, the House of Representatives and Senate are set to vote on the GOP's "Cut, Cap and Balance" proposal, which would enact drastic spending cuts and would allow a debt limit increase only if Congress approves a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The bill has little chance of becoming law, but the GOP leadership hopes that by allowing its members to lodge a protest vote against federal spending, it will buy them room to make a deal. But Democrats also see political gold in a proposal which they are already starting to blast as another version of Paul Ryan's controversial 2012 budget proposal.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

The bill, which was proposed by the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House Republicans, would enact $111 billion in cuts to federal spending in fiscal year 2012, and would set spending caps for the future, which would decrease annually over the next 10 years. The bill would also include a debt ceiling increase of $2.4 trillion, the amount requested by President Obama, but only after both the House and the Senate had approved a balanced budget amendment to the constitution, sending the amendment to the states for ratification.

The bill would exempt Social Security and Medicare from the immediate cuts to entitlement spending. But the bill also sets out future constraints to entitlement spending, starting in 2012, which include those retirement programs, Democrats note. While the 10-page bill doesn't specifically require cuts to Social Security, Democrats argue that Social Security cuts would be inevitable if the spending targets were to be met. In a statement promising to veto the bill, the White House said it would "lead to severe cuts in Medicare and Social Security, which are growing to accommodate the retirement of the baby boomers, and put at risk the retirement security for tens of millions of Americans. ... [The bill] sets out a false and unacceptable choice between the Federal Government defaulting on its obligations now or, alternatively, passing a Balanced Budget Amendment that, in the years ahead, will likely leave the Nation unable to meet its core commitment of ensuring dignity in retirement." White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed those sentiments during his press conference Monday, calling the bill "duck, dodge, and dismantle."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The bills' supporters insist that it would not affect Social Security or Medicare, only that it sets targets which are necessary to sustain America's fiscal future. "It's up to future Congresses to decide how we get there," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah and the sponsor of the bill, who dismissed Obama's criticism as scare tactics. "I think we would need long-term entitlement reform, but everybody knows that. We were in that boat a long time ago." Chaffetz said he was unlikely to support any other way to raise the debt limit, including the backup option currently being considered by the two party leaders in the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, which would enact $1.5 trillion in cuts to enact a staggered debt ceiling increase.

The GOP's bill is a bit of what's Washingtonians like to call Kabuki theater — a debate with overheated rhetoric, but one over a bill with little chance of passing the Senate or surviving a presidential veto. So far, everyone has followed the script. Obama's veto threat has lead the charge for Democrats against the plan, while Republicans get to pounce on the president for opposing a way to increase the debt ceiling. Democratic Senate leaders have reluctantly agreed to allow a vote on the bill, hoping to move the process along. But the debate over the bill, as well as a possible vote on a balanced budget amendment to the constitution, is eating up time as the Treasury Department's August 2 deadline approaches. Although Obama vowed last week to hold negotiating meetings every day until the crisis is resolved, the two sides haven't formally met since Thursday, and none are scheduled for this week.