The real test for Obama

How he navigates the coming debt ceiling crisis will tell us whether he cut a sensible deal on the "fiscal cliff"

Topics: Opening Shot, Barack Obama, John Boehner, Debt ceiling,

The 113th Congress will convene for the first time at noon today, and barring an unforeseen morning development, it will in one of its first act elect John Boehner as speaker.

Boehner has been an unusually weak speaker, one who has little power to bend his own party’s rank-and-file to his will and little space to cut deals with the other party. That’s not about to change, as his handling of the fiscal cliff showdown demonstrated, which is why I wondered a few weeks ago why he’d want to sign up for two more years. But he evidently is willing to pay the price, and we saw on Tuesday night exactly what that means. As The Hill reported:

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is signaling that at least one thing will change about his leadership during the 113th Congress: he’s telling Republicans he is done with private, one-on-one negotiations with President Obama.

Boehner’s two major negotiations with Obama over the past two years famously ended in humiliation for the speaker. In the summer of 2011, he seemed on the verge of striking a “grand bargain” with the president, only to abruptly pull back when House conservatives made their absolute refusal to go along clear. And just before this Christmas, of course, there was the Plan B debacle. So in a way, Boehner’s new message to his colleagues is sensible: Why go through the charade of negotiating in the future if he’s in no position to deliver on any deal struck?

But it also affirms the degree to which Boehner is led by the House conservatives and their far-right, compromise-phobic agenda. And that could spell trouble in the coming months, with a new governing crisis now on the horizon.

The issue is the debt ceiling, which must be addressed by the end of February or early March. As Greg Sargent has been pointing out, the government’s ability to borrow money to pay the bills that Congress runs up shouldn’t be a point of negotiation, but Republicans since 2011 have been adamant about making it one. And the opportunity to do so again in the first months of 2013 is a key reason why the fiscal cliff deal – which ended the 22-year streak of no Republicans voting for a tax hike – was enacted without a full-scale revolt from the right. Fairly or not, conservatives see a chance with the debt ceiling to force Obama and Democrats to make the kind of deep cuts to the social safety net that they’d been hoping for during the cliff talks.

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Lindsey Graham, who isn’t a member of the House but who is scared of a potential 2014 Senate primary challenge (and therefore has an incentive to channel the ideology that drives House conservatives), summed up the opportunity that the right now senses the other day:

I’m not going to raise the debt ceiling unless we get serious about keeping the country from becoming Greece, saving Social Security and Medicare. So here’s what I would like: meaningful entitlement reform – not to turn Social Security into private accounts, not to take a voucher approach to Medicare –but, adjust the age for Social Security, CPI changes and means testing and look beyond the ten-year window. I cannot in good conscience raise the debt ceiling without addressing the long term debt problems of this country and I will not.

This is what conservatives in the House will be demanding before voting to raise the debt ceiling – or, for that matter, in exchange for undoing the $1.2 trillion sequester that was put on hold for two months as part of the cliff deal. The catastrophic consequences of a debt ceiling default are well-documented, but an alarming number of Tea Party-types in the House – the type that Boehner is often intimidated by – genuinely don’t seem to mind.

This sets up a major test for Obama. His public position has been clear since the election: He will not negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling – it’s simply something they have to raise, unless they want to take responsibility for ruining the economy.

But in a way, Obama already has negotiated over the debt ceiling. He began the fiscal cliff talks by saying he wanted a permanent end to debt ceiling brinksmanship to be part of any deal. Then he indicated he’d settle for a two-year extension. Then he signed off on a deal that didn’t address the debt ceiling at all. This has the right feeling somewhat emboldened; they didn’t get their way on the fiscal cliff, but now they have (in their view) real leverage to compel Obama to sign off on their safety net-cutting agenda.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Obama cut a bad deal on the fiscal cliff. In fact, the deal itself is more favorable to Democratic priorities than Republican concerns. But by not addressing the debt ceiling and signing off on a sequester delay, he in effect put off the real battle over entitlement programs by two months. Now conservatives will use the threat of a catastrophic default to try to make the president and other Democrats blink. The worry is that Obama will ultimately give serious ground; the hope is that he’ll stand his ground, and ultimately find support from the (generally pro-GOP) business community, which grasps the threat that a default represents. Only when these battles are over will we really know whether the debt ceiling deal was a good one.

Steve Kornacki

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

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