Oops! GOP’s Empty Threat On The Debt Ceiling Exposed

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Republicans have a strange new debt limit strategy: Demand conditions attached but promise not to default if Democrats refuse to comply.

“I think for the president to ask for a clean debt ceiling [increase] when we have the debt the size of our economy is irresponsible,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Fox News Sunday. “I think the president is taking an unreasonable position to suggest that we ought to treat his request to raise the debt ceiling like some kind of motherhood resolution that everybody says aye and we don’t do anything, when we have the stagnant economy and this massive debt created under his administration.”

Fighting words. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has similarly warned
that Republicans will insist on attaching conditions to any resolution that raises the country’s borrowing limit and prevents a potentially disastrous breach in late February. They may tie it to legislation that scraps a stability mechanism in Obamacare that they call an insurer “bailout,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) signaled.

But what if Democrats reject the demand, as they have vowed to?

“We’re never going to default. The Speaker and I made that clear. We’ve never done that,” McConnell said. Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel, calling on the White House to negotiate a solution amenable to the House, similarly said the Speaker believes “we should not default on our debt, or even get close to it.”

To use a sinister analogy, the stance is akin to a hostage-taker demanding a victim’s wallet at gunpoint but promising not to harm him if he refuses to comply. Republicans control only the House, and have no way of forcing Democrats to pay a debt limit ransom again. They’ve demonstrated multiple times that they’re unwilling to shoot the proverbial hostage and risk default.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted Sunday that Republicans would back down. The White House and Congressional Democratic leaders don’t take the GOP’s warnings seriously — they point out that Republicans leveled similar threats twice last year and both times ended up backing off and raising the debt limit without extracting any policy concessions.

“We take seriously the fact that [McConnell is] scared to death of losing his seat and that could impair his judgment on this issue,” said a Democratic Senate leadership aide, mockingly referring to the GOP leader’s re-election bid this year.

The warnings by McConnell and Boehner reveal the extent to which Republicans remain beholden to their right flank, even to the point of picking self-defeating battles that party leaders know they cannot win. It foreshadows another round of brinkmanship followed by a likely Republican surrender as the deadline approaches, after satisfying (partially, if not wholly) their rank-and-file members’ craving for confrontation with President Barack Obama.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Obama won’t pay a “ransom” to make sure the federal government can pay the bills Congress has incurred.

“[Republicans] have passed what is essentially a debt limit free of ideological riders the last two times,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “They should do it again and spare the country the drama and economic damage of repeating the move no one wants to see from October.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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