Surprise: Obama Bails Out Harry Reid With (Yet Another) Budget Summit

Posted: May 09, 2011 5:43 PM
In what a senior Republican aide calls "a dramatic turn of events," Senate Democrats have -- at least for now -- forestalled plans to release their alternative to Rep. Paul Ryan's 2012 budget.  Why?  Because the White House has called for yet another bipartisan summit.  This week's forthcoming White House meetings are not to be confused with the bipartisan fiscal commission the president appointed then ignored, mind you -- nor should they be conflated with the new round of Biden-supervised bipartisan talks the president outlined in his awful debt speech last month.  No, these are new meetings -- and they're scheduled to occur on the exact days Senate Democrats were preparing to, at long last, present their own concrete 2012 fiscal blueprint.  How curious.

After much cajoling, Senate Republicans finally managed to win assurances from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) that his party would reveal an on-paper plan to counter the Ryan budget.  "We were preparing for it," the GOP aide says, suggesting that the mark-up process was expected to begin mid-week.  Then, a few things changed:  Sen. Conrad briefed his Democratic colleagues on the contents of the plan (behind closed doors, of course; the public still hasn't gotten a whiff of Democrats' plans), and Harry Reid immediately began expressing reservations.  He cautioned his caucus against prematurely endorsing the document.  "[Reid seemed] less than enthused about Sen. Conrad releasing something that would be on paper, and therefore subject to analysis," the aide says.

Facing a possibly embarrassing rift within the party and a soft but looming deadline, the White House has intervened just in the nick of time by requesting meetings with both Senate caucuses.  As a result, public consumption and examination of the Senate Democrats' budget has been postponed indefinitely.  "The mark-up is off for now.  Instead we have yet another summit," the Republican laments.

I'm no budget expert, but wouldn't it make more sense for the White House to hold off on hosting these grand gatherings until after Democrats produce their alternative to the Ryan budget?  If the president is going to assume the role of mediator-in-chief, it seems intuitive that the mediation process would unfold more effectively if there were two separate plans on the table, each of which would serve as a basis for negotiation.  Instead, the president has summoned Senators to the White House before a second plan can be released.  Why is that?  "Good question," the aide responds.  The likely answer is simple:  Political gamesmanship.  Democrats would prefer to focus the public's attention on a twisted caricature of the GOP plan.  Putting their own document on the table invites scrutiny and comparisons, and complicates their all-in Ryan demonization campaign.  That might be a positive development for good-faith negotiations, but it's detrimental to Democratic point-scoring.  In short, this White House stunt looks like little more than a political lifeline for Harry Reid.

UPDATE -  The Senate Budget Committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions, seems suspicious and dismayed:

“The announcement of these summit meetings at the White House is a stunning development. It has been 740 days since the Democrat Senate has passed a budget. This week Senate Democrats were finally going to unveil their plan for saving this nation from fiscal disaster and present that plan in the Senate Budget Committee. The plan has been a closely guarded secret, and Republican requests to make it public and to share it with members before they meet to work on it have been rebuffed. And now, by calling for this summit, it would seem the president has effectively cancelled this week’s planned unveiling of the Democrat budget."