The GOP’s biggest cave yet

Instead of voting to raise the debt ceiling, now they'll just pretend it doesn't exist

Topics: Opening Shot, Editor's Picks, Barack Obama, Debt ceiling,

It wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented for John Boehner’s latest maneuver to blow up in his face, but all indications are that House Republicans will vote today for a plan that would essentially pretend the debt ceiling doesn’t exist for the next four months.

The idea is both a recognition of the untenability of using the looming debt ceiling expiration as a bargaining chip to extract spending cut concessions from the White House and the fear of most House Republicans of going on record voting “yes” to a debt limit hike. Hence Boehner’s solution, which would “suspend” the debt ceiling through the middle of May and, apparently, make it possible for the government to keep paying its bills for several months after that even if no subsequent agreement is reached.

Given what until about two weeks ago had been the GOP’s Obama-era orthodoxy on the debt ceiling — it can never be raised until an equal level of budget cuts are agreed to! — this represents a huge retreat. It’s also a validation of the deal that President Obama struck with Republican leaders just before the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deadline. That deal left the debt ceiling unaddressed and allowed Republicans to claim a victory; we have no choice but to give in on revenues now, they said, but this leaves us with the leverage to force deep social safety net cuts in the months ahead. Obama, by contrast, vowed not to engage in any negotiations over the debt ceiling, a commitment that some commentators (present company included) questioned his willingness to keep.

But Obama stuck to his guns and pressure from powerful Republican-aligned forces quickly fractured the GOP and neutralized the threat of further debt ceiling brinkmanship. The party began looking for a way out at its recent retreat in Williamsburg, Va., and the result is today’s vote. Assuming the House does pass Boehner’s plan, it won’t automatically end debt ceiling standoffs going forward, but it will represent a giant step back toward pre-Obama norms, in which legislators might cast symbolic “no” votes on ceiling extensions, but never used the threat of a default to force policy concessions. This is a significant victory for the president, and a real surrender on the GOP’s part.

That said, it does still leave unresolved serious questions about safety net spending that have been at the heart of the standoff between Obama and the GOP House for two years now. On multiple occasions since 2011, the president has expressed a willingness to pursue a “grand bargain” with Republicans that would exchange revenue increases for reductions in Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — even if it would mean doing battle with his own party. Several times, Obama and Boehner have walked up to the edge of a deal, only for the House speaker to step away in fear of a revolt from his own members.

But the fact remains that the Obama White House has been open to safety net changes that would make the Democratic base very uncomfortable. A rise in the eligibility age for Medicare was supposedly on the table during talks in the summer of 2011, and was floated again by the White House just last month. A change in the cost-of-living formula for Social Security benefits, one that would result in cuts for long-term pensioners, was also in the mix as Obama sought a fiscal cliff deal.

Even with the debt ceiling out of the picture, deadlines still loom — the $1.2 trillion sequester is set to take effect on March 1, and soon thereafter the continuing resolution that funds the government will expire. To appease his own members over their debt ceiling cave, Boehner is promising to allow Rep. Paul Ryan to draft a new budget plan for them, one that will supposedly attain balance in 10 years. (Ryan’s previous plan would have taken 30 to 40 years to do this.) The idea is to force Senate Democrats to produce a budget plan of their own, which (in theory) would force Democrats to present specific entitlement cuts, and then to reconcile the two plans.

Given the GOP’s absolute opposition to more revenue in the wake of the fiscal cliff denouement, we can safely assume that Ryan’s plan will rely on steep cuts, probably deeper than anything he’s previously proposed. The question that remains to be answered is whether Obama and Democratic congressional leaders will play along with this at all. Will the president respond by calling for a vastly scaled back version of whatever cuts the GOP proposes, mixing in new revenue and telling his base it’s the best way to preserve safety net programs long term? Would he be willing to walk away and, say, accept the sequester if the GOP were to refuse to accept a compromise like this? Or is he simply done with these types of negotiations?

His inaugural address on Monday, in which Obama offered a heartfelt defense of the safety net without calling for a bipartisan compromise on cuts, represented a striking departure from what has been his posture for the last two years. It remains to be seen exactly what he meant by it, though.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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