5 Things to Watch For in Debt-Ceiling Crunch Time

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We could be less than 48 hours away from a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for between $2 trillion and $4 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Reps. Peter King and Billy Long have said that if the parties don't reach an agreement this weekend, they might not have a deal "for a long time."

Not getting a deal would be a big deal. A technical default on August 2 would make it illegal for the United States to borrow money from foreign markets. The federal government would have to rely on day-to-day cash flow or creative accounting to pay for all its obligations. The first casualties could include federal contractors, employees, and pension payments. Default could also send U.S. borrowing rates skyrocketing, as investors feared that Washington dysfunction would result in missed debt payments. Higher interest rates at the federal level could trickle down into higher borrowing rates for homeowners, car buyers, and small businesses.

Here are five things we (think we) know about the negotiations at the end of the work day on Thursday:

1) Everything Means Everything. When lawmakers say everything is on the table, everything means "Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, spending cuts, user fees, broadband spectrum auctions, recalculations of the Consumer Price Index, tax reform, corporate tax subsidies and other tax preferences." [NJ] Short of selling Alaska and adding a millionaire tax bracket, it really does seem like almost everything in the budget is being negotiated.

2) Democrats Are Nervous. The Democratic message is simple. No entitlement cuts and a balanced approach to savings. They should be nervous because they might get neither. Liberals in the Senate and House want a 50-50 breakdown between spending cuts and tax increases. The deal coming out of the White House negotiations sounds more like 70-30.

Democrats are also nervous about cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Nancy Pelosi has said her caucus "won't vote for a grand bargain to raise the debt limit and reduce future deficits if the final deal includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits" Brian Beutler reported today.

3) Republicans Are Nervous. The Republican message is simple. No new taxes. They should be nervous because this deal will include revenue increases, no matter what. There is no chance that President Obama will stand up before a podium and announce a compromise that is 100% cuts to government. But it's similarly hard to imagine the House quickly adopting any plan to raise revenue by $1 trillion in the next decade, as the president has proposed.

4) Social Security Is on the Chopping Block. It's becoming extremely hard to follow the back and forth on Social Security. Pelosi says it's off the table. Clyburn says it's on the table. And there's been surprising buzz for a reform called "chained-CPI" (I wrote about this a month ago) which would slow the growth of Social Security checks with a slower-growing inflation adjuster. I'm not sure why chained CPI would be better than changing Social Security's bend points (explanation here), which would let lawmakers concentrate benefit cuts on the rich. But that's the buzziest Social Security reform of the day.

5) Something Will Surprise You. When there is a deal, something will be the surprising clinch. But what? The White House could emerge Sunday night with a surprise victory for both parties, such as another stimulus in the form of payroll taxes cuts; for Democrats, such a tax plan that would restrain the alternative minimum tax to raise effective rates on the richest families; or for Republicans, like unexpectedly deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

In 48 hours, maybe we'll know.

___

Update: I just tweeted a thought. If the GOP agreed to another $100 billion payroll tax break next year, but also agreed to reduce $1 trillion in tax expenditures over the next decade (which comes out $100 billion a year), could they say they didn't raise taxes? Or is that too clever by more than half?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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