Playing Chicken With the Debt Ceiling


Mike Konczal is unhappy that raising the debt ceiling wasn’t explicitly part of Obama’s tax deal with Republicans yesterday:

This should be a no-brainer and a deal-breaker for liberals considering supporting this bill. No Democrat should support this compromise without this issue being addressed. The debt ceiling is going to be hit sometime early next year, between February and April. Alan Simpson is already bragging about how this vote will be a “bloodbath”, forcing the austerity agenda into action. It would not surprise me if the new Congress moved to cut back on the stimulus program and force deep cuts at that moment when this new stimulus is getting going, and the idea that Obama will show leadership in averting this crisis can no longer be assumed.

I’m going to put on my Slate hat and be contrarian about this. First off, it doesn’t matter what Alan Simpson says. He runs off his mouth routinely and he’s not even in Congress, let alone part of the Republican leadership. So who cares what he says? Second, and more important, the political incentives are different now.

With a comprehensive, budget-busting tax deal in place, the only thing left for Republicans to complain about is spending. And they will. But they’re in a fairly weak position. They’re already on record supporting a deal that blows up the deficit, so they can hardly claim to be simon pure on that front. And with the House in Republican hands, they’re as responsible for the budget as Democrats. They’ll fight for reductions here and there, but I frankly doubt that they’re going to risk losing votes from important constituencies by pushing hard for significant cuts in major programs. In the end, they’ll compromise with the Senate in conference, as they always do, with both sides making minor concessions. And once they’ve done that, they don’t really have much leverage to complain about the debt ceiling. Some tea party backbenchers will blow off steam complaining about it, but the GOP leadership will let them vent and then get down to the business of rounding up the votes for passage.

I could be off base about this. But I’m just not sure that either John Boehner or Mitch McConnell has the stomach for this fight. What matters is taxes and spending, and once they’ve cut a deal on those two things — as I think they will — they can’t really backtrack and pretend to get self-righteous about the debt ceiling. There may be a few days of drama as both sides play a bit of brinksmanship for their respective bases, but that’s about it.

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