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With coin gambit off the table, GOP faces stark choice

Over the weekend, the Treasury Department officially took the $1 trillion platinum coin idea off the table.
With coin gambit off the table, GOP faces stark choice
With coin gambit off the table, GOP faces stark choice

Over the weekend, the Treasury Department officially took the $1 trillion platinum coin idea off the table. It was a fun thought experiment, and I continue to believe it was a public debate worth having, but when it comes to resolving the Republicans' looming debt-ceiling crisis, it's apparently time to move on from the coin gambit.

Now, there are a few other exotic schemes out there, but all available evidence suggests there will be no workaround. As White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday, "[T]here is no plan B. There is no backup plan. There is Congress's responsibility to pay the bills of the United States."

In other words, either congressional Republicans do their duty and meet their obligations or they don't. Those are the options.

In the larger context, I saw a fair amount of chatter on this over the weekend, with many on the left suggesting the Obama White House has given up its leverage by rejecting the coin option. Is the criticism fair? That depends a bit on one's perspective. There are basically two schools of thought.

1. Obama disarmed a month before a critical standoff: By ruling out the escape hatch, President Obama and his administration have shifted the leverage in the GOP's favor. Even if the White House never intended to actually mint the coin, leaving open that possibility made Republicans nervous, and told GOP leaders that the president had the option of acting unilaterally if they pushed the fight too far. Now, that's no longer possible, and the result is more power in Republican hands.

2. Obama has ratcheted up the pressure on the GOP: By rejecting the coin stunt early on, the president has actually strengthened the White House's negotiating position. The coin idea wasn't Obama's escape hatch; it was the Republicans' -- it meant they could screw around endlessly, knowing that, when push came to shove, Obama would act and save the nation from default without Congress having to be responsible in the slightest.

Since these two contradict each other, they can't both be right. And though I was initially inclined to believe the former over the latter, I'm beginning to change my mind.

We talked last week about a House Republican pushing a proposal to rule out the coin option, but did you notice how many GOP leaders endorsed his bill? The answer is zero -- they ignored it. And it's worth appreciating why.

The protestations notwithstanding, the coin proposal actually looked pretty good from a Republican perspective. They don't want a default, but they don't want to raise the debt ceiling. If Obama minted the coin -- or more accurately, if he ordered Treasury to mint the coin -- the GOP would get everything it wants: a resolution to the crisis, a satisfactory conclusion without so much as a floor vote, and an off-the-wall scheme they'd use to criticize the White House as reckless and irresponsible for a long while.

Over the weekend, with the administration scuttling the coin idea altogether, Republicans suddenly find themselves right back where they were -- with all the pressure squarely on their shoulders. They started the debt-ceiling crisis, and now it's on them to resolve it, one way or the other. If GOP policymakers want to avoid a global economic catastrophe of their own making, they'll have to come to their senses before it's too late.

Like it or not, there is no escape hatch; there is no pressure valve; there is no gimmick that can save the day at the last minute. Republicans can either do the right thing or the wrong thing. They can either hurt Americans or come to their senses. There are plenty of remaining questions -- does the GOP want a default; do they understand the severe consequences of their actions -- but asking what Obama will do to prevent the Republican crisis is no longer one of them.