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'Negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest'

As the Republicans' debt-ceiling crisis takes shape with 20 days until the deadline, it's not surprising that some of the rhetoric surrounding the hostage
Senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer
Senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer

As the Republicans' debt-ceiling crisis takes shape with 20 days until the deadline, it's not surprising that some of the rhetoric surrounding the hostage standoff is going to get a little heated. In Republican circles, these comments yesterday were over the top.

The White House "is for cutting spending. We're for reforming our tax code, for reforming entitlements," said senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer."What we're not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest," he added.House Republicans are not asking for a negotiation, but rather demanding a hefty ransom, said Pfeiffer. "It is not a negotiation if I show up at your house and say, 'Give me everything inside or I'm going to burn it down.' The Republicans have provided a laundry list of essentially ransom demands," he noted.

Republicans were livid about the "bomb strapped to their chest" line, and at a certain level, I'm sympathetic to their argument. As a rule, regardless of where one falls on the political divide, officials should resist the urge to compare their rivals to terrorists. I don't care how radicalized congressional Republicans have become -- they're not al Qaeda. Period. Full stop.

But there is a larger context to this that shouldn't be overlooked.

It caused a minor stir at the time, but during the last Republican debt-ceiling crisis, Vice President Biden was quoted saying in a private meeting, in reference to GOP lawmakers, "They have acted like terrorists." We have, in other words, been here before.

And while I'm not defending the comparison or rhetorical excesses, there are two angles to keep in mind.

The first is substantive. Right now, congressional Republicans have said they're prepared to hurt the country on purpose unless Democrats meet their demands. It is a level of extortion politics unseen in the United States in the post-Civil War era, and it is genuinely dangerous to our collective wellbeing.

If Republicans don't want to hear over-the-top rhetoric, maybe they should shy away from over-the-top tactics. I imagine the White House would be far more inclined to dial down the heated language if GOP lawmakers stopped taking hostages.

Second, let's also not forget that Republicans have compared themselves to terrorists from time to time in recent years. In April 2011, Paul O'Neill, the Bush/Cheney Treasury Secretary, said, "The people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists. Really."

In 2010, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he could "empathize" with a madman who flew an airplane into a building on American soil. In 2009, shortly after President Obama's inauguration, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said if congressional Democrats didn't allow Republicans to influence policy debates, the GOP would have to emulate the "insurgency" tactics of "the Taliban." Sessions added, "[W]e need to understand that insurgency may be required," and that if Democrats resist, Republicans "will then become an insurgency." The Taliban, Sessions went on to say, offers the GOP a tactical "model."

If a White House aide compares Republicans to suicide bombers, it's outrageous, but if a Texas Republican congressman compares his own party to the Taliban, it's fine?