Debt-ceiling debacle limps forward

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
House Republican leaders appear keenly aware that their latest debt-ceiling fight isn’t going well. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) convened a “special conference meeting” in the Capitol basement last night to plot the way forward.
Despite the uncertain fate, Boehner’s team moved ahead with the option linking a restoration of recently cut military pension benefits to a one-year extension of the Treasury’s borrowing authority. The cost of restoring that cut to military pensions, about $7 billion, would be offset by an extension, by one year, of planned automatic spending cuts to entitlement programs.
Just so we’re clear, note that the current line from House GOP leaders is that they’re demanding **increased government spending** in exchange for a debt-limit increase.
 
As Suzy Khimm explained, “This is what happens when you’ve lost the war – but insist on another battle anyway.”
 
For Boehner, the plan nevertheless has a lot of appeal. Republicans are supposed to like increased support for military pensions, even if it is social welfare spending, and Democrats are supposed to be put on the spot in an election year. The debt limit goes up; Republicans get a reward; and the nation avoids default. For the GOP, it’s a win-win.
 
At least, that’s the idea. In practice, Democrats in Congress and the White House are still  refusing to play debt-ceiling games, and House Republicans aren’t thrilled with Boehner’s latest gambit. GOP leaders expect to bring their new bill to the floor tomorrow, but no one has any idea whether it has the votes to pass.
 
Complicating matters, the calendar is starting to weigh more heavily on lawmakers’ thinking.
 
The Treasury Department has already told Congress that the nation has until Feb. 27 – two weeks from Thursday – to avoid default. And while that may sound heartening since it would give lawmakers plenty of wiggle room, note that House Republicans have given the chamber another two-week vacation scheduled to begin tomorrow.
 
You see the problem. If the GOP-led House votes on Boehner’s new plan tomorrow and then leaves town, Congress increases the risk of getting a little too close to a perilous cliff.
 
There is, of course, an incredibly easy solution: lawmakers can simply approve a debt-ceiling increase, as they’ve done several dozen times before, without extraneous treats, goodies, ransoms, or games.
 
But by all appearances, what Republican leaders fear most is not default, but the prospect of clean debt-ceiling increases becoming routine again, denying the party the opportunity to turn borrowing authority into periodic extortion plots in which one congressional party holds the nation hostage.
 
It’s why the Speaker and his leadership team have searched so aggressively to add something, anything, to the debt-limit bill – it’s about establishing a precedent in which clean bills are a thing of the past.
 
Democrats understand this. It’s why Boehner, who can’t actually create an economic crisis on purpose in an election year, is struggling so badly to play a losing hand.
 

Debt Ceiling and Debt Limit

Debt-ceiling debacle limps forward