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Why the Republicans’ debt ceiling ransom note is blank (for now)

Republicans know they want a debt ceiling hostage crisis, but their ransom note is blank. Democrats are pushing the GOP to make specific demands.

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About a decade ago, congressional Republicans thought it’d be a good idea to launch another debt ceiling crisis, on the heels of their 2011 crisis that did real harm. But in 2013, they just weren’t sure what to demand from the Obama White House.

So, GOP officials aimed high. Ten years ago, House Republicans declared that they would force the country into default unless Democrats agreed to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And approved the Keystone XL pipeline. And imposed Medicare means testing. And made the Dodd-Frank financial-regulatory-reform law more Wall Street friendly. And increased oil drilling. And ended the EPA’s efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Writing for The Washington Post, Ezra Klein explained at the time that the wish list “isn’t a serious governing document. It’s not even a plausible opening bid. It’s a cry for help.”

Barack Obama ignored the comical list of demands, rejected the idea of negotiations, and GOP lawmakers ultimately backed down without causing a deliberate economic catastrophe. A decade later, as Republicans once again threaten to harm Americans on purpose, is their list of demands equally outlandish?

Oddly enough, no one knows. For now, the GOP’s ransom note is blank.

It’s hardly an ideal situation. As the United States faces yet another Republican-imposed crisis, the party doesn’t have a specific strategy, per se. Far-right lawmakers have made vague comments about spending cuts — cuts they expect Democrats to accept to prevent GOP officials from crashing the economy on purpose — but they’ve said nothing publicly about what exactly should be cut and by how much.

They expect some kind of ransom, but we don’t know what. It's not altogether clear if they know what, either.

“Why don’t House Republicans name the programs they want to cut in exchange for paying America’s bills? Then we can see if voters want to cut those things,” Sen. Chris Murphy argued via Twitter last week. The Connecticut Democrat added, “If it’s cuts voters want, then we should just do it, separate from the debt ceiling, and not burn down the economy.”

For many Democrats, the point is to push Republicans to admit that they’ll push the nation into default in pursuit of cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other popular social-insurance programs. At that point, the differences between the parties will become even more obvious, and Democrats will have a new cudgel they can use in the 2024 elections.

There are degrees of risk with such an approach. What matters most is that Republicans are choosing to impose a crisis on the nation and threatening Americans with deliberate harm. Some Democrats want to shoehorn in a related point about the GOP’s hostility toward Social Security, but that’s a tricky move given the circumstances.

But for President Joe Biden and his team, there’s a related goal in mind that’s not immediately obvious at first glance. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that White House officials believe the only viable policy solution is a legislative path: Congress has to extend the nation’s borrowing authority or there will be a default. There’s been conversation about assorted gimmicks and work-arounds, but Team Biden, at least for now, doesn’t see them as serious.

All of which makes the blank ransom note that much more significant. From the Post’s article:

The Biden administration is focused on pressing the GOP to unveil a debt limit plan that includes spending cuts, with the hope that such a proposal will prove so divisive among Republicans that they are forced to abandon brinkmanship. This strategy stems in part from the belief among White House officials that it would be enormously risky either to negotiate policy with the GOP on the debt limit or try to solve it via executive order — and they appear willing to put that premise to the test.

In other words, Biden believes the Republican-led House will have to do the right thing eventually, and that’s more likely to happen if GOP lawmakers fight amongst themselves over what to include on their own ransom note.

It also helps explain Republican leaders’ preoccupation with negotiations: GOP officials envision a model in which they don’t have to come up with an explicit list of demands. They much prefer to sit down at the negotiating table and effectively tell Democrats, “Tell us what you’ll give us to prevent a catastrophe, and we’ll let you know when we’re satisfied.”

Or put another way, Republicans believe they can avoid a political crisis if they can push the White House into going first, offering cuts so they don’t have to.

As GOP leaders will eventually realize, Biden won't — and by any fair measure, can't — engage in such a process.