Why Are Democrats Playing the GOP's Game With Debt Ceiling?

Please see update at the end of this post.

Debt Ceiling Fever is going viral. Key Senate Democrats have joined Republicans in calling to attach budget reform to the debt ceiling vote, including Sens. Kent Conrad, Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor, the Washington Post reports.

Politics ain't easy, but sometimes politicians make it too difficult. There is a consensus on the debt limit among the most important people in Washington. President Obama wants to raise it. Sen. Harry Reid wants to raise it. House Speaker John Boehner wants to raise it. So do Conrad, Manchin, Pryor, and every other Democratic senator. Only the wacky rightwing fringe of the Republican Party is threatening to let our borrowing authority expire to make a point about spending cuts. So why are centrist Democrats trying to turn a top-level consensus into a negotiation they'll lose?

I reached out to Pryor's office this morning but didn't hear back from his spokesperson. I did hear back from Sen. Amy Klobachar's office with the following response:

"I don't believe we should play Russian Roulette with our economy and that's why I will not let our nation's borrowing authority lapse with the debt ceiling vote," Klobuchar, a smart moderate Democrat, said in a statement. "Yet this year's vote provides an opportunity to include some long-term debt reduction targets and I will work to do that."

Klobuchar's goals and efforts to enact them are shared widely by the caucus, and they are admirable. But her party's strategy of yoking budget reform to the debt ceiling vote is a risky one.

House Republicans have said they will not raise the debt ceiling without major spending cuts. This is, to be generous, an insane position. There is literally no economist I've spoken to who does not find this position to be sane. So you'd think that this obviously insane announcement might give centrist Democrats an opportunity to go on TV and point out, again and again, that it's insane; that the debt ceiling is not a toy; that our borrowing authority cannot be taken hostage by a rogue majority in the House; that holding our economy at the edge of a cliff and threatening to let go is a reckless way to run government.

Instead, moderate senators are saying: Crazy and dangerous budget negotiations with a radical conservative House? Ooh, let us play! They're following the GOP caucus down a rabbit hole that can only end with a conservative budget plan. After all, this House will never, ever vote for tax increases and wants prorated cuts close to $100 billion in 2011.

What is the end game here for Democrats? How else do they think this will conclude?

Update: After re-reading Klobuchar's statement, it occurs to me that there are three distinct groups in the debt ceiling debate. The first group is the Republican caucus demanding budget cuts and making wild threats about the debt limit. The second group is Democratic senators like Conrad, Manchin and Pryor who appear to see the debt limit as a useful, if risky, tool in getting their own budget ideas enacted. The third includes people like Klobuchar, who has said she will vote for the debt ceiling increase without question, but also sees the vote as a platform (or newspeg, even) to discuss long term budget reform. To be clear, I would prefer that the debt ceiling not exist and that we use it as an opportunity for absolutely nothing since it's a silly vote that shouldn't exist anyway; but Klobuchar's position should have been made more distinct from the other groups in the original post.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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