Both the ‘fiscal cliff’ budget talks and the Supreme Court’s decision to hear two marriage equality cases offer reasons to hope … and cause for concern. (More)

Hope, Fear, and Tea Leaves in Budget Talks and Marriage Equality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

First the actual news: President Obama accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s request for private, one-on-one budget talks, and the Supreme Court agreed to review both a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act and the Ninth Circuit decision overturning California’s Prop 8.

And that’s pretty much it for the actual news. No one except President Obama and Speaker Boehner knows exactly what was said in their discussions. I could find no source confirming that they met at all yesterday, but they may have. As for the marriage equality cases, while I’d guess that at least one or two Justices have already made their decisions on ideological grounds, I hope most will at least wait to read the parties’ briefs.

The rest is hope and fear based on the reading of tea leaves.

Budget Talks: Outline of a Deal, or Trial Balloon?

Yesterday the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein reported on what may be the outline of a budget deal:

Talk to smart folks in Washington, and here’s what they think will happen: The final tax deal will raise rates a bit, giving Democrats a win, but not all the way back to 39.6 percent, giving Republicans a win. That won’t raise enough revenue on its own, so it will be combined with some policy to cap tax deductions, perhaps at $25,000 or $50,000, with a substantial phase-in and an exemption for charitable contributions.

The harder question is what Republicans will get on the spending side of the deal. But even that’s not such a mystery. There will be a variety of nips and tucks to Medicare, including more cost-sharing and decreases in provider payments, and the headline Democratic concession is likely to be that the Medicare eligibility age rises from 65 to 67.

The New Yorker‘s Jonathan Chait thinks the Medicare eligibility age is an issue on which Democrats should be willing to deal:

This seems like a useful time for liberals to sort out the difference between budget ideas we don’t like and budget ideas we can’t or shouldn’t accept. (Ezra Klein has some other sensible ideas here.) Many of my liberal wonk friends have been making the case against raising the Medicare retirement age — see Sarah Kliff, Matthew Yglesias, and Jonathan Cohn. Their basic case is that raising the Medicare retirement age is a really stupid way to save money because it just forces people to stop buying health care through Medicare, which is relatively cheap, and start buying it through private insurance, which costs way more.

They’re all totally right about this. Still, when the question comes to what concessions the Democrats are going to have to accept, rather than what policy makes the most sense, raising the Medicare age seems like a sensible bone to throw the right. For one thing, it has weirdly disproportionate symbolic power, both among Republicans in Congress and establishmentarian fiscal scolds. Mitch McConnell and Erskine Bowles alike would regard raising the retirement age as a sign of serious belt-tightening and the “structural reforms” conservatives say they need. Meager and inefficient though the savings may be, they pack a lot of punch in delivering Republican votes.

What’s more, raising the Medicare retirement age would help strengthen the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act.

Chait goes on to argue that 65- and 66-year-old seniors would bring additional political pressure to implement and strengthen rather than block and weaken the ACA. Maybe so, but the New York TimesPaul Krugman still thinks raising the Medicare eligibility age is a terrible idea:

First, raising the Medicare age is terrible policy. It would be terrible policy even if the Affordable Care Act were going to be there in full force for 65 and 66 year olds, because it would cost the public $2 for every dollar in federal funds saved. And in case you haven’t noticed, Republican governors are still fighting the ACA tooth and nail; if they block the Medicaid expansion, as some will, lower-income seniors will just be pitched into the abyss.

Second, why on earth would Obama be selling Medicare away to raise top tax rates when he gets a big rate rise on January 1 just by doing nothing? And no, vague promises about closing loopholes won’t do it: a rate rise is the real deal, no questions, and should not be traded away for who knows what.

Dr. Krugman predicts there will be “hell to pay” if President Obama accepts this deal, and he may be right. But keep in mind that the only Democratic leader who has yet spoken directly on it is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who told the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent “I am very much against that, and I think most of my members are. I don’t see any reason why that should be in any agreement.”

The what-if-well-maybe-oh-no is happening, pundits insist, because she didn’t use words like “deal breaker” or “red line.” This may be unnamed sources floating trial balloons, or it may be simply the Beltway Blather Brigade and their sworn duty to never let an absence of information force an empty news cycle.

It’s important to remember that this is about more than the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The December 2010 deal, set to expire at the end of this month, also included extended unemployment insurance benefits, the extended payroll tax cut, and other still-needed stimulus programs. So-called “cliff-divers” eager to let the 2010 deal expire and force Republicans to vote against tax relief for 98% of Americans don’t mention those other cuts … and most would hurt hardworking families very quickly.

The Marriage Equality Cases

Similarly, the absence of real information about why four Supreme Court Justices voted to take the marriage equality cases has not deterred celebrations by LGBT activists. As California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom told Bloomberg:

Today marks the beginning of the end for a California journey that started eight years ago when San Francisco issued same-sex marriage licenses. By agreeing to hear the Proposition 8 case the U.S. Supreme Court could end, once and for all, marriage inequity in California.

Yes, that’s one possibility. The other is that aging conservative Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas think this may be their last chance to block marriage equality, before age and more state initiatives like those that passed last month leave the Court’s right wing with no cards left to play. They may be counting on 76-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion overturning state sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, to join the conservative bloc as he did in the Affordable Care Act case.

University of Texas-Austin law professor and Supreme Court historian Lucas Powe told TPM he doesn’t think that’s likely:

“I don’t think justices get in this position very often because everybody knows what the judgement of history is going to be,” Lucas Powe, a Supreme Court historian at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law, told TPM before the court’s announcement. “I don’t think think anybody doubts that gay marriage is coming – it’s only the issue of time. This is one of those times where no matter what you think you know you’re going to be wrong if you oppose it.”
[…]
“I think Kennedy’s vote is very secure,” Powe said. “I think there are comfortably five votes to overturn DOMA. … Kennedy has a libertarian streak – he has written the key gay rights opinions and I think he will continue to do so.”

Maybe so, but Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig was one of many legal experts who made a similar argument about Justice Scalia and the Affordable Care Act. Just sayin’.

UnSpun authors Brooks Jackson and Katherine Hall Jamieson called cynicism “another form of gullibility,” as cynics disbelieve news stories before weighing the evidence. I don’t think that’s a huge risk here. Again, the only solid evidence is that President Obama and Speaker Boehner are or will be talking one-on-one, and the Supreme Court will hear two marriage equality cases. The rest is speculation – reading tea leaves – and that requires a healthy dose of skepticism. On both the budget talks and the marriage equality cases, both panic and celebration are … premature.

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Happy Saturday!