In 2011, during the original Republican debt-ceiling crisis, how many GOP lawmakers publicly balked at their party’s hostage strategy? None. There were literally zero congressional Republicans willing to stand up and say, “Wait, this is wrong. We’re making a mistake.” Every single GOP lawmaker – including the “moderates” – simply went along.
With this in mind, arguably the biggest difference between 2011 and 2013 debt-ceiling crises is important: this time, there’s a noticeable lack of Republican unanimity.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) became the first Republican senator to come out against using the debt ceiling as leverage for spending cuts, contradicting Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans who favor such a tactic.
In an interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner published Tuesday, Murkowski said, “If you incur an obligation, you have a responsibility to pay for that.” According to the paper, “Murkowski said spending cuts are crucial but shouldn’t be tied to the debt ceiling debate.”
“Murkowski, at a News-Miner editorial board meeting on Jan. 9, said she doesn’t think the debt limit should be used for political leverage,” wrote reporter Jeff Richardson. “Murkowski said not all of her colleagues in the Senate will say it out loud, but she believes most agree that failing to raise the debt limit would harm perception of the country.”
This is important. For the Republican strategy to be effective, the party has to march in lock step. The moment some GOP policymakers start to say publicly, “Maybe we should let the hostage go” – with others making similar remarks in private – the entire gambit starts to fall apart.
To be sure, there are others on the right – Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, among others – who’ve counseled their party to end this losing fight, but Murkowski is the first sitting Republican member of Congress to publicly reject the GOP strategy. She probably won’t be the last.
Given yesterday’s developments away from Capitol Hill, the timing of this is critical.
For example, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner reminded policymakers that time is running out.
The Treasury Department has officially set a deadline for raising the debt ceiling, albeit a loose one: Congress needs to act by mid-February or early March, or the country will face an unprecedented default.
In a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, the departing Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, said that the estimate was subject to “significant” uncertainty because the country is entering tax-filing season. Higher-than-expected refunds could mean the country runs out of cash sooner. Higher-than-expected tax payments mean it could run out of cash later. But Mr. Geithner urged Congress to act “as early as possible.”
He also said that Congress could cause “irreparable harm” to the economy by failing to lift the debt ceiling in a timely manner. The country makes about 80 million separate payments a month, to seniors, soldiers, bondholders and thousands of others. Were Congress to fail to raise the ceiling, Treasury would miss an estimated 40 percent of those payments. It might also throw the financial markets into a panic, compounding any economic damage caused by the missed or delayed payments themselves.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Republican economist from the Bush/Cheney years that Republicans now consider a liberal, once again called for the elimination of the debt ceiling altogether and condemned the Republican strategy. “This is sort of like a family saying, ‘Well, we’re spending too much, let’s stop paying our credit card bill,’” he explained.
And while we’re at it, let’s also not forget that Tom Donohue, the head of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has also called on Republicans to end the debt-ceiling crisis before they do further damage.
If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have a plan to resolve their own mess, while overseeing a divided caucus and dealing with private-sector pressure to end this nonsense, I’d sure love to know what it is.