The Big Debt Limit Tell?

December 13, 2012 7:33 a.m.

We ran this piece about a month ago, before the steady drip drip drip of Republicans started arguing more or less the same thing.

The basic argument was that House Republicans could limit Obama’s policy victories — and possibly secure some of their own — by caving quickly on income tax rates for the rich. Once the grieving process had run its course, the GOP would find itself in a much stronger negotiating position next year. Obama would still be well short of his overall revenue goal, without a mechanism to force Republicans to yield again on taxes; and the debt limit would allow Republicans to reopen their 2011 playbook and force Obama to cut social insurance programs against his will.

Since then a few things have happened to make me question this analysis:The “cave now, fight later” strategy has become something like conventional wisdom on the right. Democrats, who are still demanding Boehner extend middle-income tax cuts — have realized they might end up hoist by their own petard, and are steeling themselves to resist any GOP debt limit demands in the months ahead.

But despite having ample cover to throw in the towel on taxes, John Boehner’s still trying to figure out some way — any way — to cut a big deficit deal with Obama, even if it means handing over more than Obama’s minimum revenue ask.

Maybe that’s because one of Washington’s mysterious religious precepts holds that every hopeless legislative negotiation must be strung out as long as humanly possible. But the fact is that it’s much easier for Republicans not named John Boehner — particularly Senate Republicans not named John Boehner — to bluster about picking a new debt limit fight.

Maybe Boehner’s reluctance to fold and reshuffle the deck is a mere formality, and he’s just waiting to do just that when the calendar “forces” him to. But as more and more Republicans give him their blessing, it’s worth asking whether he’s resisting because he disagrees with those in his party who think he can deal himself the same hand he held in 2011.

At the end of the day, it’s not John Cornyn nor Ron Johnson or Tom Cole or even Mitch McConnell who has to raise the debt limit. It’s Boehner. And if he believes in his heart that Democrats really won’t suffer a new, contrived debt limit hostage crisis, he knows he’ll have a much, much bigger problem on his hand in six weeks if he can’t cut a fiscal cliff deal before the end of the year.

We’ll see how this all shakes out very soon. But if, as recent reporting suggests, he’s still entertaining big budget deals that his own leadership team can’t support — even though his party’s telling him it’d be OK to just put the middle income tax cuts on the floor for a vote — it’s a sign to me that Democrats have successfully called his debt limit bluff.

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