A spirited debate has unfolded within the Republican Party over the last several weeks about what the party intends to do to sabotage the federal health care system. A significant contingent within the GOP has demanded a hostage strategy: Republicans should tell Democrats that they'll shut down the government unless Dems agree to deny health care benefits to millions of Americans.
The strategy is, of course, destined to fail. Democrats will never agree to pay such a ransom, and Republicans don't want to be on the hook for a shutdown that puts their control of Congress in jeopardy.
GOP leaders realize they can't follow through on such threats, but they also realize radicalized rank-and-file congressional Republicans won't be satisfied with nothing. With this in mind, National Review's Robert Costa reports that GOP leaders are prepared to let one hostage go, while taking a new one for Republicans to threaten.
Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.
I lack the words to describe how truly crazy this is. "Dangerously stupid" and "hopelessly insane" come to mind, but even these phrases don't capture the radicalism of the plan under consideration. It's threatening a level of madness without modern American precedent.
As Ezra Klein explained, "Trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock. And Boehner knows it. Republicans will effectively be going to the White House and saying, 'Delay the health-care law or we will single-handedly cause an unprecedented and unnecessary global financial crisis that everyone will clearly and correctly blame on us, destroying our party for years to come.' ... This is not a safe way to govern the country."
It seems increasingly obvious that congressional Republicans are less a governing party and more a group of intemperate children who like to play with matches -- and it just so happens they've stumbled upon some explosives.
To be sure, a government shutdown would be an awful development that would hurt the economy and severely undermine public services Americans rely on. But a debt-ceiling crisis is on a whole other level -- it's like comparing cutting your hand with a kitchen knife and needing stitches, and amputating your hand altogether. The former is serious; the latter is tough to recover from.
In 2011, congressional Republicans launched the first debt-ceiling crisis in American history, threatening national default -- on purpose -- unless their demands were met. Democrats effectively gave in, giving GOP lawmakers extensive spending cuts in exchange for nothing. The fight, however, was a disaster -- the crisis Republicans deliberately imposed undermined the economy, hurt job growth, and undermined intentional confidence in the United States at a sensitive time.
The White House has since said it will not allow Republicans to put the country through this again. Republicans have said they don't care.
Whether they're prepared to admit this or not, GOP leaders must realize that this won't end well. In fact, at a certain level, I'm reasonably certain House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) already knows this -- he told reporters in March, "I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government."
If he meant it, then there's nothing really to worry about. If Boehner isn't really in control of his own caucus, however, then the United States is facing a looming crisis and it's probably time for Americans to start paying attention. Because if Republicans actually shoot their hostage, the nation will default, the economy will crash, and the recovery process will be unpredictable, at best.
One more angle to keep in mind: this wouldn't just be a fight between Democrats and Republicans; it would also be a fight between Republicans and Republicans. In the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, not one GOP lawmaker in the House or Senate was willing to stand up and say the party was doing the wrong thing. In 2013, we've already seen some Republican lawmakers -- in the House and the Senate -- say this is a fight their party shouldn't start.
Why does this matter? Because it reinforces the notion that the right-wing hostage plan really won't work out -- it's tough enough to pull off a dangerous scheme like this when Republicans are united, but if they're divided amongst themselves, Democrats will have that much more leverage and the crisis will be that much more likely to fail.