White House to host budget talks

WHITE HOUSE TO HOST BUDGET TALKS…. Once in a great while, policymakers can actually move pretty quickly. Friday afternoon, House Republican leaders came up with a plan to keep the government open for two more weeks, and Senate Democrats said they could live with it. It passed the House on Tuesday, passed the Senate Wednesday morning, and President Obama signed it into law yesterday afternoon.

That, of course, gave Washington a new deadline: pass funding for the fiscal year by March 18 — two weeks from tomorrow — or the government shuts down.

With that in mind, the White House, which hasn’t played much of a role in the process thus far, is poised to start hosting negotiations.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will convene a meeting of Congressional leaders of both parties in the Capitol Thursday afternoon in an effort to find a way out of a spending dispute that has the entire government operating under a stop-gap budget.

The White House announced that what could be the first of several sessions of talks would be held at 4 p.m. Also taking part from the Obama administration will be Chief of Staff William Daley and Jacob Lew, the budget director. President Obama called for the negotiations on Wednesday.

Keep in mind, as recently as 24 hours ago, GOP leaders refused to say whether they’d attend. As far as Republicans were concerned, the brutal cuts approved by the House represents one part of the debate, and they wouldn’t come to the table until Senate Dems presented their comparable plan.

But that never made much sense. The Republican argument, in a nutshell, has been, “We’ll talk after we’ve seen an unwritten Democratic plan we know we won’t like.”

Today, the GOP dropped the posturing and accepted the White House’s invitation.

OK, so everyone will get together for a chat. We can say with some confidence what Republicans will demand. What, pray tell, will Democrats say? That’s far less clear.

The Dems’ relative silence on this isn’t nearly as strategic as Republicans make it out to be. The truth is, Democrats haven’t pushed their own spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year because they just haven’t seen much of a point — why invest energy in a proposal that can’t pass? House Republicans did this, but only because they wanted to, in part to establish a baseline for future talks, and in part to thump their chests for the party’s right-wing base.

But when GOP officials complain that they have no idea what Democrats actually want from this process, they’re not wrong. Indeed, no one does.

Ezra Klein had a good post on this earlier.

The Republicans want to cut federal spending at an annualized rate of $100 billion, which means cutting about $64 billion for the rest of the year. Democrats want to … win the future? Simply keep the government from shutting down?

In a more normal world, the Democratic position would be that we’re staring down 9 percent unemployment and it’s too early for any fiscal contraction whatsoever. But that’s not their position, at least not publicly. They want to make spending cuts, but somewhat less than the Republicans do. They want to protect investments for the future, but they haven’t offered any benchmarks for how much investment we should be doing. They long ago gave up trying to push for further net stimulus. So when they sit across a table from the Republicans, either during this negotiation or the coming negotiations over the debt limit and the 2012 budget, what are they going to say? What does a policy win for the White House look like?

Those are excellent questions, for which there is no obvious answer. When it comes to Democrats, all we can say with certainty is that they consider the House GOP proposal a “non-starter.” I’m glad, but that’s not much to go on.

And when it comes to Republicans, all we can say with certainty is that they consider the figure to be paramount — they expect a $61 billion package of cuts, no exceptions. They seem far less concerned about what, exactly, gets cut, but they’re desire to meet the dollar target borders on obsession.

Irresistible force? Meets an immovable object.