Four Theories of John Boehner's Debt Limit Strategy
House Speaker John Boehner has tried to convince conservatives to abandon their idea to use the threat of a government shutdown to force President Obama to defund Obamacare, telling them instead to wait and use the debt limit to force Obamacare concessions. Framing the spending negotiations this way pleases no one.
House Speaker John Boehner has tried to convince conservatives to abandon their idea to use the threat of a government shutdown to force President Obama to defund Obamacare, telling them instead to wait and use the debt limit to force Obamacare concessions. Framing the spending negotiations this way pleases no one — conservatives want a shutdown fight, while Obama does not want to negotiate over the debt limit. This has left many people struggling to figure out what Boehner is trying to do.
"I've made it clear that we're not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit," Boehner promised Republicans at an Idaho fundraiser on Monday night. "We’re going to have a whale of a fight." But on the same day, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced the debt ceiling would have to be raised by mid-October. That means the time between the fight Boehner doesn't want and the one he does is only about 15 days. The timing means "there is no difference between the strategies," The Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll writes. "Everything will be on the table as soon as the House gavels back into session Sept. 9."
In a conference call with House Republicans last week, Boehner said they would push Obama on the debt limit, but not the continuing resolution to fund the government. Some weren't pleased, The National Review's Jonathan Strong reports, and the call turned "ugly." Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, for example, "told Boehner to 'go back to the drawing board.'" But Boehner showed no sign he'd do that on Monday night, at a fundraiser for Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, the Idaho Statesman reports. "There is no reason for the government to run out of money," Boehner said. But risking the debt limit is fine. On Tuesday, Boehner's spokesman told Roll Call that the House GOP would demand spending cuts equal to the amount the debt ceiling is raised.
This is so Obama can save face. "Combining the two events essentially allows Obama to negotiate on both, while making it seem as though he is keeping his promise not to negotiate on the debt limit," the Washington Examiner's Carroll says.
GOP chaos is actually part of the plan. Salon's Brian Beutler argues that it might look like there's little chance any debt limit increase can pass the House with a majority of Republican votes, much less one that can do that and pass the Senate. That's OK! Here's the "ideal scenario," Beutler says:
...Boehner introduces legislation that both increases (or extends) the debt limit and includes some goodies for conservatives that make the bill a non-starter with Senate Democrats and the President (maybe a year-long delay of the individual mandate — let your imaginations run wild); that bill fails on the floor; everyone panics; faced with no better option, Boehner breaks the Hastert rule [allowing it to pass with Democratic votes], puts a tidy, Senate-passed debt limit bill on the floor, and we all dress up as Speaker Pelosi for Halloween.
That means Bohener's actually counting on the House GOP to descend into chaos so he can pass something that can get through the Senate.
Boehner is bluffing and will cave. At Business Insider, Josh Barro says the threat over the debt limit is a bluff. Remember the last time Boehner's spokesman said Republicans wouldn't raise the debt ceiling without an equal amount of spending cuts? It was December 2012. It didn't happen. In Idaho, Boehner said he wanted to cut mandatory spending, meaning Social Security and Medicare. But, Barro writes, there's no GOP "consensus on a package of entitlement reforms."
If Republicans were to stage another debt ceiling showdown over entitlement reform, they would have to (1) threaten to cause an economic crisis unless (2) they are given a package of reforms that many Republican officials don't even want, which (3) would also happen to be hugely unpopular with voters.
Once they get through the government funding fight, then the GOP will see the political costs of risking global financial crisis by not raising the debt ceiling, and cave like they did last time.
There is no plan. We are all doomed. New York's Jonathan Chait says there is a problem with the theory that Boehner can convince Republicans to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for coaxing some spending cuts out of Obama. Yes, there are some long-term entitlement cuts Obama would agree to. But Republicans say they want to offer Obama an end to the sequester if he will delay Obamacare for a year. In order words, trading a thing Obama doesn't want for a thing Obama wants even less. And the moderate Republican senators who would theoretically be enticed by a deal on the sequester have publicly said they won't trade the sequester cuts for more long-term cuts. Chait writes, "If there’s no deal on sequestration, how do the House Republican leaders convince their members to lift the debt ceiling? You can only placate irrational people with impossible future promises for so long."