If the debt ceiling end game plays out as currently anticipated, the House will pass Speaker John Boehner’s plan this evening, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R- Nev., will respond by rejecting that proposal and passing an alternate measure. Then the two chambers will hash out a compromise.
As I’ve noted before, the dirty little secret is that despite all of the back and forth, there isn’t a substantial difference between the Reid and Boehner plans. While they differ over whether to extend the debt ceiling in two chunks or one, neither plan includes tax hikes or entitlement cuts, both create a bipartisan committee to recommend future savings, and both cut discretionary spending by roughly the same amount.
But while a lot of attention has been given to the headline numbers in the two plans, there’s been less discussion about the composition of the cuts. The biggest difference right now is over defense spending, an issue that’s likely to come into greater focus when talks reach the final stage.
How far apart are the two sides?
The numbers are hard to pin down, for reasons, I elaborate on below. But Claude Chafin, communications director for the House Armed Services Committee, tells me that Reid’s current plan has “several hundreds of billions” more in defense cuts over the next decade than Boehner’s.
In 2012 and 2013, according to Chafin, the Reid plan would allocate roughly $544 billion each year to defense. By comparison, Boehner would allow for a range of $553 billion to $569 billion in 2012 and up to $571 billion in 2013. Thus, the combined difference between the plans over the next two years would be anywhere from $18 billion to about $50 billion.
Reid’s plan doesn’t provide specifics for security spending after 2013, so it becomes harder to get precise numbers. But what we do know is that any cuts compound over time. And according to estimates by the Armed Services Committee, this would mean several hundreds of billions of dollars in lower defense spending under the Reid proposal through 2021.
As I noted, these numbers are difficult to come by for several reasons. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t break down defense and non-defense spending in its analysis of each plan. Also, the legislative language of the Reid proposal only differentiates between “security” and “non-security” spending, which is a different metric.
The “security” category, for Reid, is comprised of defense spending and Veterans Affairs. In its analysis, the Armed Services Committee assumed that Democrats won’t be cutting Veteran’s benefits, and would instead extract all of their “security” cuts from the defense budget.
The issue of defense spending has been under the radar in the past several days, but I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more about it before a final deal gets struck.