House Republicans Still Can't Figure Out What Debt Limit Fight They Want to Lose

So far the House Republican strategy on raising the debt limit has been akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic after it's already settled on the ocean floor. 

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So far the House Republican strategy on raising the debt limit has been akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic after it's already settled on the ocean floor. It's gone like this: Republicans want a concession from President Obama for lifting it, despite knowing they won't get one. They narrowed the hostages down to two options. And now they've given up on those, too. 

As part of the GOP's capitulation in the budget fight last October, the debt limit — the legal cap on the government's ability to borrow money — was removed until this Saturday. (Once back in place, the Department of the Treasury thinks we can make it to the end of the month before it would need to be lifted.) The October fight over funding that prompted the government shutdown was only resolved when the need to raise the debt limit became unavoidable; at that point, the bill quickly passed Congress without any real concessions from Obama. In theory it's a great inflection point — it's something that the government has to do in the eyes of everyone on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, so why not make the president accept a few other passengers before the ship sails?

In practice, that doesn't seem to work. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that House Republicans had narrowed their passenger list (or, as some have labeled them, hostages) down to two: approving the Keystone XL pipeline or eliminating a protection for insurers in the Affordable Care Act. Now, those have been scrapped according to Businessweek, because the Republicans couldn't reach consensus on which hostage to get behind.

"House leaders lack enough Republican support for either option," Businessweek reports, "and they are looking at other possible conditions to attach … One option being discussed by some Republicans is raising the debt ceiling without conditions, relying mostly on Democratic votes."

That's what Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador has advocated: Put the debt ceiling increase on the Democrats. To which the Democrats now would almost certainly say: Yeah, OK, no problem. The problem for Republicans is that the enticing term "debt ceiling" has led Republican voters typically see a raise in the debt ceiling as tantamount to allowing more debt. (It doesn't; it simply allows the government to pay bills already racked up.) Democrats don't have that kind of opposition in their base, so raising the limit is far less of a big deal.

Other conservatives joined Labrador, suggesting that the party avoid the "theater" of a fight it knows it will lose. And theater it is: the result is predetermined. A debt ceiling increase without any qualifications is the only thing Democrats and the president (who signs the bill) have said they'll accept. The Republicans backed down in October; they'd certainly have backed down again now. When Keystone XL and the insurer "risk corridor" rollback were on the table earlier this week, it seemed like a way to bring attention to fights that might help in November. Theater. But now it seems like even the appetite for that is gone.

The discussions aren't over. The Post's Robert Costa reports that the next House Republican conference will look at available options and figure out what passenger/hostages to propose if any. The end result won't change, but there's at least a chance we'll get a little theater out of Washington in the interim.

Update, 4:15 p.m.: There's a new contender, according to The Washington Post's Robert Costa: restoring cost-of-living increases for members of the military. Boehner apparently thinks the ploy could entice Democratic support. We will see.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.