Congress's Half-Baked Half-Solution to the Debt-Ceiling Crisis

A six-week extension would avoid national default, at least for now. But would it really change anything else at all?
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Reuters

Story updated at bottom

Here's the debt-ceiling deal that's shaping up Thursday—and if this qualifies as a sign of progress, it's proof of how far Congress has lowered the bar: The House will raise the debt limit for six weeks without any conditions related to Obamacare or spending, and President Obama will sign it.

The important thing is that it prevents national default by breaching the debt ceiling, which is definitely something. But let's count some of the ways this is insane:

  • It sets the country up for the same fight in six weeks, right before Thanksgiving. (Fun, because if the country defaults, we will all be hunting our own turkeys with axes carved from leftover kindling.)
  • It leaves the government closed.
  • It doesn't even address Obamacare, which is of course what led Republicans to shut down the government and precipitate the crisis in the first place.

Despite that, there's some logic on both sides—as well as dangers. First, Republicans are getting hammered in poll after poll for the shutdown and threats of default, yet they're no closer to getting any of what they wanted—not Obamacare delay, not Obamacare defunding, not major budget cuts. During a caucus meeting today, Speaker John Boehner appealed to his caucus to try to simplify their fight. “We can’t fight on two fronts,” he said, according to Politico. And it looks like for once a good number of Republican backbenchers are actually talking to him—probably thanks to a big assist from influential conservative activist circles, including Heritage Action and Erick Erickson. Still, it'll be a delicate act spinning this as anything more than a cave. 

Meanwhile, Press Secretary Jay Carney signaled the White House's grudging openness to the short-term deal: “The president is happy that cooler heads at least seem to be prevailing in the House.”

On the one hand, it's the only politically tenable position President Obama can really take. Having said he will accept only a clean debt-ceiling increase, he'd have a hard time if he appeared to be choosing default over a clean increase only because it was too short. The danger is that it looks a lot a cave for the president, too. Though there's no specific mandate for talks in the plan, isn't this negotiating over the debt ceiling and shutdown—the one thing he said he wouldn't do? (Republicans are already spinning his invitation to a group of them to visit the White House today as a sign that he's now open to talks.)

On the other hand, the continued shutdown is awful for Republicans, so why not let them continue to torpedo themselves? Maybe by mid-November they'll be ready for unconditional surrender! (Don't count on it.)

The pessimistic take is that if this deal works, it solves nothing and delays everything. The nation is still pretty close to reaching the debt ceiling, Republicans have shut down the government, and President Obama still says he won't negotiate with a gun to his head.

But hey, the markets like it already!

Update: Or maybe not! Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid seems less receptive than the White House, categorically ruling out any negotiations until the government reopens. That doesn't seem to strictly torpedo the nascent deal, but it may make Republicans reconsider.

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Presented by

David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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