No, No, They Won’t

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January 20, 2015 4:09 p.m.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says Senate Republicans will not sign on to the House’s new Social Security crisis ploy or any effort to cut benefits … unless they have Democratic support. This is quite believable. Indeed, it’s the major lesson of the Bush era Social Security phase-out debacle from back in 2005.

The key back in 2005 was that there was widespread but vague support for Bush’s phase out plan in the GOP caucus. There was general opposition from the Democrats (then in the minority in both chambers). But quite a few Democrats refused at first to state clearly where they stood and still others treated the debate as one they were willing to participate in in good faith. (In seldom in politicians’ individual interests to state clear positions until the politics and constituency group alignments are clear.)

As long as that was the case, President Bush was in a strong position.

But then two things happened. More and more wavering Republicans were forced to state for the record where they stood and many ruled out various aspects of President Bush’s program. That broke some of the sense of inevitability behind the White House’s push.

Even more important, more and more Dems were forced to state their position. And increasingly they said they were opposed.

In all legislative fights, lack of detailed information, generalized senses of where each caucus’s head is, works against voters trying to understand what’s happening. Caucuses don’t vote. People vote. As more Dems were pressed to say no, the light shined brighter on the decreasing number of those unwilling to tell voters where they stood. The fewer there were, the less able they were to hold out. As is often the case in life, there’s safety in numbers and peril alone.

As the debate unfolded, it became clear that if Republicans pushed a partial phase out of Social Security they would get no cover from Democrats. And that was the beginning of the end. More Republicans bailed out. That pushed more Democrats to run toward the caucus position of complete rejection. The two processes catalyzed and built upon each other.

That’s the same logic McConnell is employing here.

But there’s a catch. It’s actually not up to McConnell. Because of the legislative dynamics of the question, Senate Republicans don’t need to do anything. Simply by refusing to push through a standard reallocation between the Trust Funds, House Republicans can force a crisis. Whether that will happen or not isn’t clear. But the firebrands in the House hold the cards.

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