The leadership is showing jitters about a default apocalypse, but Tea Party crazies could still force it anyway
I agree with Greg Sargent – I made the same point on “Hardball” yesterday – that there’s growing evidence Republican congressional leadership is nervous about forcing a second debt ceiling showdown with President Obama.
Sure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it off the table on the Sunday shows – but he also refused to commit to it. McConnell, who famously chuckled about how the 2011 disgrace showed the debt ceiling was “a hostage worth taking,” pointed to other GOP opportunities for a budget showdown, including the upcoming sequester deadline and the continuing resolution to keep the government running.
Maybe more significant, House Speaker John Boehner told the Club for Growth’s Stephen Moore that while the debt ceiling is “one point of leverage,” he “hedges,” in Moore’s words, insisting it’s “not the ultimate leverage.” Boehner thinks the sequester is the GOP’s “stronger card,” Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and Moore agrees, insisting, “It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.”
Of course, as measured by the capacity to inflict catastrophe, Boehner and Moore are wrong. The threat to hit the debt ceiling is a much more destructive weapon to aim at Obama and Democrats — and of course the economy – than sequester cuts or a government shutdown.
Boehner also suggested that raising the debt ceiling, but only for a month, and continuing with monthly votes indefinitely, would be a better plan than an Armageddon next month. But GOP Rep. Tom Cole publicly disagreed on MSNBC today. “No, I actually think that’s a very short-sighted way to do it. I would hope the president presents some sort of solution that’s much longer term than that.”
Newt Gingrich, of all people, was an early doubter on taking the debt ceiling hostage again, calling it a “dead loser,” and urging House Republicans to find “a totally new strategy.” But Gingrich remains a big fan of a government shutdown, delusionally insisting on “Meet the Press” Sunday: “I helped close the government twice. It actually worked. Bill Clinton came in and said the era of big government is over AFTER two closings, not before.”
Newt clearly hasn’t learned the lessons of 1995, when his shutdown led to Clinton’s overwhelming reelection, and his party’s further overreach on impeachment led to the Democrats actually picking up seats in 1998, the first time in ages that the president’s party didn’t lose seats in his second-term midterm election.
A government shutdown, while terrible, is far less horrific than another debt ceiling crisis. The sequester’s domestic program budget cuts make it somewhat more terrible than a shutdown, which would by definition be temporary. Still, the fact that half the cuts would hit defense makes it harder to expect the GOP to simply live with it, which was the whole point of the pain-spreading sequester in the first place.
Of course, Tea Party crazies and other GOP extremists could still conceivably force a debt-ceiling showdown, and possibly deny Boehner the votes to lift the ceiling if he tried to do it. In the National Journal, Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin scoffed at polls showing the GOP suffered from the fiscal-cliff showdown and would likely bear the same burden in a debt-ceiling standoff. “At the end of the day, the only poll that matters is the one in people’s districts. I’m focused on the people in my district,” Griffin said. “National polls include people in Nancy Pelosi’s district, Henry Waxman’s district … I don’t work for them, and I’m not real worried about the national polls.”
Yet the fiscal cliff deal pointed to the contours of a sane debt-ceiling vote, with virtually all House Democrats and a sizable rump of Republicans ultimately voting in favor of the compromise. Of course there’s no guarantee Boehner could line up those 85 votes again, and Pelosi couldn’t afford to sacrifice a whole lot of Democrats with a bad deal.
Still, there’s evidence that GOP leadership will blink sooner this time as the ceiling approaches than they did in 2011. As Sargent concludes:
GOP leaders want to be granted the presumption of leverage based on the threat of default, yet they are not prepared to deliver on that threat. Even worse, they need to somehow signal publicly that they are not really serious about default as an option — otherwise the business community will come down on them hard — while simultaneously maintaining the public posture that the debt ceiling hike really is something Dems will need to pay for with concessions of their own.
They still have some leverage to force cuts, of course, with both the sequester negotiations and the government shutdown deadline. And if Obama still wants a “grand bargain,” he could use those threats to try again, as I wrote on Sunday. But if he can’t get one — again — the threats of either the sequester cuts or a shutdown are far less frightening than defaulting on our debts. So it’s easier to imagine the president and leading Democrats holding firm, as well they should.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
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