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A decade later, Republicans still don’t know what ‘concession’ means

In 2011, GOP leaders said the only concession they were willing to make to avoid default was raising the debt ceiling. The line hasn't improved with age.


As the debt ceiling crisis has unfolded, there’s been a fair amount of talk about the need for some kind of “compromise.” The idea, of course, is that both parties would eventually reach an agreement, with neither side getting everything they’d like to see in a bipartisan deal.

There is, however, one glaring problem standing in the way of a theoretical compromise: Republicans not only don’t want to make any concessions, they seem genuinely confused about what a concession even is.

This was painfully obvious yesterday when CNN asked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy one of the most important questions of the entire crisis.

McCarthy is trying to relay to his members that he isn’t folding to the White House’s pressure campaign, saying on Tuesday he’s only willing to make one concession in exchange for GOP demands for spending cuts and ways to pare back social safety net programs. “We are going to raise the debt ceiling,” he told CNN when asked what he’d give to the White House in their deal-cutting.

It’s not just the House speaker. The Washington Post asked Rep. Patrick McHenry, a close McCarthy confidant, what the GOP has offered to get Democratic votes for a bipartisan deal. “The debt ceiling,” the North Carolina Republican replied.

Republican Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, who’s helping take the lead in the talks with White House officials, added, “That’s what they’re getting.”

Let’s be very clear about this, because it’s arguably the single most important detail about the negotiations. Facing the threat of default, GOP officials envision a “deal” in which they get regressive and unpopular policies that hurt struggling families. In exchange, Democrats would get literally nothing — except the satisfaction in knowing that Republicans won’t crash the economy this year.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s not your imagination. If you’ve been reading me for a long time, you might recall my coverage of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor adopted the identical line, arguing that his party’s “concession” would be “the fact that we are voting — the fact that we are even discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase.”

Not to put too fine a point on this, but this position is indefensible — and it has not improved with age.

Whether Republican leaders are prepared to acknowledge this simple truth or not, agreeing to pay the nation’s bills is not a “concession.” It is routine paperwork that both parties have agreed to do periodically for about a century.

Indeed, the fact that the debt ceiling has to be raised is one of the few details Democratic and Republican leaders agree on: There’s a consensus that this is not optional.

Once this simple truth is established, the question then becomes what it will take to get an agreement. For Republicans, the answer — at least at this point in the process — is bonkers: They’re prepared to accept Democratic concessions, and that’s it.

They don't want compromise; they demand capitulation. Period. Full stop.

The whole idea of a concession is that it represents something that a party doesn’t want to do, but agrees to accept as part of a larger agreement. The fact that GOP leaders are treating default avoidance as a concession necessarily means that Republicans either (a) refuse to make any concessions whatsoever; or (b) see paying the nation’s bills as a step they oppose taking.

The x-date deadline might arrive as early as a week from tomorrow. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters yesterday, “Everybody needs to relax. .... Regardless of what may be said about the talks on a day-to-day basis, the president and the speaker will reach an agreement. It will ultimately be passed on a bipartisan basis in the House and Senate. The country will not default.”

I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea what gives him such confidence.

Update: This afternoon, asked about possible concessions, McCarthy pointed to his own policy priorities, reinforcing concerns that he's either trying to deceive the public or he literally doesn't know what a concession is.