Where do things stand in the debt limit mess? My best guess: What we’re really seeing right now is Republicans attempting to implement an organized retreat and surrender.
Here’s why. Conservatives entered into the debt limit with entirely unrealistic expectations. Moreover, having already lost battles they apparently (and, again, unrealistically) expected to win on health care and the government shutdown showdown earlier in the year, many Republicans committed even more strongly to their unrealistic expectations on the debt limit. But Dems insisted on new revenues and drew a hard line on restructuring entitlements — and all signs were that they would not give.
So Mitch McConnell’s original proposal to transfer control of the debt ceiling to the president with absolutely no deficit reduction was basically a strong warning to Republicans: you’re not going to get what you really want. He was letting them know that they could choose to negotiate their best surrender — or, if they refused to do so, they would wind up getting almost nothing at all.
I think that’s also the best way to understand the Gang of Six revived package — it offers Republicans another way out of their mess. Of course, it’s almost entirely symbolic. Down the line it’s possible that some actual legislation can emerge from it, but there’s no chance that “down the line” will be before the debt limit is extended, and there’s no way to guarantee that “down the line” will ever happen. But this is nonetheless an escape hatch of sorts — Republicans could package a debt limit increase with a symbolic vow to implement the Gang of Six proposal later.
So what choices to Republicans have now? They can choose the clean McConnell plan — no actual deficit cutting, but lots of symbolic blame for raising the debt limit thrown at Barack Obama and the Democrats. They can choose a modified McConnell, which would probably be packaged with a relatively small amount of spending cuts. Or they can package a debt increase with a symbolic Gang of Six vote, which would not by itself reduce the deficit.
The key thing here is that every one of these options is a surrender.
Yes, it’s true that under some of these options Republicans get spending cuts. But they would be nothing even remotely like what some of these folks, particularly the Tea Partyers, ran on and have been promising their constituents. And what’s basically happening now is that the relatively responsible GOP leaders are offering them various choices on how they’d like to give up.