Boehner the Scrooge?: How the GOP congress could ruin your holiday

Many alarms about the debt limit posturing are misplaced. But another New Year's showdown could be on the horizon

Published August 27, 2013 3:54PM (EDT)

                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yesterday afternoon, in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the Treasury Department set a firm (or firmer) deadline of mid-October by which Congress has to increase the debt limit. Before Monday, the country's borrowing authority was expected to lapse sometime between mid-October and mid-November; now we know the moment will arrive sooner rather than later.

That means Congress has just a couple weeks to affirm the full faith and credit of the country after it completes whatever steps it takes to avoid a government shutdown next month. And some observers are understandably spooked by such a quick succession of events.

The idea, articulated here by Kevin Drum, and here by Alex Seitz-Wald is that a late-autumn or early-winter X-date would have given House Republicans some time to lick their wounds over failing to defund Obamacare, regroup, then repeat the process all over again. Boehner himself amplified the sense of alarm by predicting a "whale of a fight" over entitlements in the coming weeks.

But what we have here is a misunderstanding of what Boehner's capable of and what needs to happen from a member-management persepective for the House to increase the debt limit.

The ideal scenario, whether borrowing authority expires in October or November is as follows: Boehner introduces legislation that both increases (or extends) the debt limit and includes some goodies for conservatives that make the bill a non-starter with Senate Democrats and the President (maybe a year-long delay of the individual mandate -- let your imaginations run wild); that bill fails on the House floor; everyone panics; faced with no better option, Boehner breaks the Hastert rule, puts a tidy, Senate-passed debt limit bill on the floor, and we all dress up as Speaker Pelosi for Halloween.

As you can see, there are a number of ways that actual events might deviate from the above scenario. Boehner could surprise everyone and actually get a debt limit bill through the House with 218 Republican votes. The Senate could fail to pass a debt limit bill of its own. Maybe party leaders make a collective decision to punt.

But for the past year or so, this is how Congress has dealt with its hard deadlines. Nothing about the timing of those deadlines changes that dynamic per se. Early this year, the House passed its fiscal cliff bill, disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, VAWA reauthorization, and a debt limit extension all within a few weeks of each other.

What would change the story is if members themselves change their behavior.

  • If Boehner declares that he won't put debt limit legislation on the floor unless it's Hastert Rule compliant, that would change the story.
  • If the carrot he dangles in front of conservatives isn't one he knows they'll reject (say, a year-long individual mandate delay) but one that actually tempts them to vote yes (say, full Obamacare repeal), then House Republicans might actually pass a debt limit bill of their own. That would at the very least prolong the fight, when there isn't much time to fight at all. And House Republicans would have a decent claim that their demands deserve a hearing.
  • If the half dozen or dozen Senate Republicans who've lost their appetites for crises decide they're hungry again, and refuse to support a clean (or mostly clean) debt limit increase, then we have a problem.

But so far everyone's playing their part. Boehner isn't making any extreme procedural demands. And just this morning Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made clear that Democrats' offer to Boehner remains 'nothing,' including relatively weak hacks at Obamacare.

"Is there any circumstance under which the administration would accept either a delay in parts of Obamacare or a defunding of parts of Obamcare?" asked CNBC host John Harwood.

"No," Lew said. This might sound alarmingly confrontational but it's actually exactly where we ought to be at this point in the story.

If the mid-October deadline does actually create problems for Boehner, or he decides he wants to go one more round, he has another option: He can extend appropriations and the debt limit simultaneously, and schedule both to expire at the same time. Another New Year's Eve showdown maybe. He can even pretend it creates new leverage for the GOP.

Indeed, here the GOP really does have leverage: specifically over whether people like me get to enjoy the holidays. But as far as extracting concessions from Obama goes, this option too would simply delay the inevitable.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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