Senior Admin Officials: Debt Limit Brinksmanship Is Political Suicide … For Republicans

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Ever since House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) signaled a return to debt limit brinksmanship this coming winter, White House officials have been adamant that the administration’s not going to countenance a repeat of last August.

“[W]e’re not going to recreate the debt ceiling debacle of last August,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted from the podium last week. “It is simply not acceptable to hold the American and global economy hostage to one party’s political ideology. It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that the United States of America pays its bills, that it maintains its creditworthiness, that it fulfills its obligation and maintains the full faith and credit that it has long enjoyed.”

At a background briefing with reporters Tuesday, two senior administration officials made a plausible case that the GOP’s demands are politically unsustainable, suggesting President Obama can stick to his guns as the debt limit approaches and that Boehner and Republicans will cave.The briefing was conducted under ground rules that prevent the use of direct quotations. But a senior administration official questioned the logic underlying Boehner’s threat. Going into an election, the official noted, Republicans will have a hard time making the case to voters if part of their platform is another debt limit debacle.

The officials stressed that the President would like to sign significant legislation to address long term deficits, before or after the election, and that a large, balanced enough package would make raising the debt limit a formality. But if Republicans can’t walk away from their anti-tax absolutism, and Congress still can’t pass anything, the debt ceiling will still have to be lifted, and Boehner will have to find the votes to do that. The two issues this time will be de-linked, as the administration sees it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) demonstrated a better grasp of the politics and the legislative landscape than Boehner in an appearance on “Face the Nation” Sunday, sidestepping the chance to join in on Boehner’s threat.

“[T]he timing will be determined by the President. They — they determine when to request of us that we raise the debt ceiling,” McConnell said. “We assume that will happen at the end of the year or, early next year.”

In other words, it’s up to Obama, not Boehner, to set the debt ceiling process in motion. And the deadline is likely to come next year, after Congress has to address the expiring Bush tax cuts and automatic spending sequestration. Boehner has suggested he wants to link the debt limit to that fiscal cliff — but as TPM has noted, the calendar isn’t working in his favor.

Asked whether they think Boehner’s simply posturing to appeal to the conservative wing of his party, an administration official joked there’s likely to be less of them when the next Congress raises the debt ceiling early in 2013.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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