January 3, 2013

Mitch McConnell (AP)

The papers are filled with articles reporting in a matter-of-fact way that Republicans plan to use the debt ceiling fight to extract major spending cuts from the White House and Democrats. Mitch McConnell is out there this morning calling for a quick resolution to the standoff — one that exchanges a debt limit hike for deep cuts.

The early returns, based on the coverage of this looming battle so far, suggest Republicans are successfully defining the terms of this debate — they are defining it as a standard Washington standoff, in which each side will demand concessions from the other. Indeed, you can read through reams of the coverage without learning three basic facts about this fight:

1) Republican leaders will ultimately agree to raise the debt ceiling, and they know it, because they themselves have previously admitted that not doing so will badly damage the economy.

2) Because of the above, a hike in the debt ceiling is not something that Democratic leaders want and that Republican leaders don’t. In other words, it is not a typical bargaining chip in negotiations, in the way spending cuts (which Republicans want and Dems don’t) or tax hikes (which Dems want and Republicans don’t) are.

3) And so, if and when Republicans do agree to raise the debt ceiling, it will not constitute any kind of concession on their part — even though they will continue to portray it as such to demand concessions in return. It will only constitute Republicans agreeing not to damage the whole country, which does not constitute (one hopes) them making a sacrifice.

Without these facts, it is simply impossible for readers and viewers to understand the basic situation that’s unfolding here. Indeed, you can read through much of the coverage and come away with the sense that this is a typical negotiation: Democrats want a rise in the debt ceiling; Republicans want spending cuts; therefore, the two sides are squaring off for a game of chicken to see who can extract more from the other. That’s not what’s happening at all, and any accounts that portray it as such present a deeply unbalanced picture.

It’s true that some Congressional conservatives say they don’t want a hike in the debt ceiling. But when they say that, all they really mean is that they want to cut spending, which we already know. As Paul Krugman recently put it, “raising the debt ceiling only empowers the president to spend money that he’s authorized to spend by Congressional legislation; nothing more.” In the current context, conservatives and Republicans who hold out against a debt limit hike are, in practical terms, only threatening the full faith and credit of the United States — and threatening to damage the economy — in order to get what they want. Any accounts that don’t convey this with total clarity — and convey the sense that this is a normal negotiation — are essentially misleading people. It’s that simple.

* Obama’s fiscal deal fights inequality: David Leonhardt has a fascinating piece arguing that Obama won big in the fiscal talks, by one key metric: The concessions he won from Republicans take significant steps in the direction of reversing inequality.

In a way, though, this only underlines how big the stakes are in the coming standoff over the debt ceiling: Obama’s handling of it will decide whether he continues to lock in change that combats inequality, or whether this movement will be undone or reversed.

* Immigration reform up next? Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten report that White House advisers are debating how to launch a comprehensive immigration reform push this year. There’s a specific goal here:

White House aides are debating whether they should take the unusual step of drafting an immigration bill or instead lay out principles that could serve as a rallying point. Pro-immigration Republicans will be recruited to help, among them evangelical pastors and small-business owners. Said one outside strategist who is familiar with White House thinking but who discussed the strategy on the condition of anonymity: “The second term rests on the hypothesis that the House Republicans can be broken.”

 It’s hard to imagine an issue that’s more likely to split the GOP than immigration reform, given that many Republicans know the party simply must repair relations with Latinos if it is to survive, even as many conservatives are likely to resist immigration reform bitterly.

* New, more liberal Senate takes effect: Among those Senators getting sworn in today: Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Heidi Heitkamp. In addition to giving the Senate Democratic caucus a more liberal bent, we are seeing a record number of women ascend to the Upper Chamber.

* Another key Senator opposes filibuster compromise: Senator Tom Udall, another key voice calling for filibuster reform, says the emerging bipartisan compromise package of weakened reforms — which nix the “talking filibuster” — simply won’t do anything to end the paralysis that currently grips the Upper Chamber.

But opposition from liberals may not stop a compromise proposal from passing. As I reported yesterday, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are in talks over the compromise, and sources say it may be passed via “standing order,” which only requires 60 votes.

 * Pressure on Harry Reid on filibuster reform: As David Firestone points out, it is on Reid to do the right thing and to avoid agreeing on any filibuster reform bargain that continues enabling unprecedented GOP obstructionism. Reid understands the stakes here as well as anyone, having negotiated an informal truce with McConnell that proved a failure.

Also: If current GOP behavior is not enough to prompt real reform, what would be? For more on this, see Steve Benen, who has a chart demonstrating the unprecedented scope of filibuster abuse in recent years.

* Reid still has votes for “Constitutional option”: Senator Udall points out that Democrats very likely could muster 51 votes to pass a better package of reforms via the “Constitutional option,” or by simple majority. The problem, of course, is that some senior Dems are balking at taking this step in the name of preserving “Senate comity” (which of course has done so much to discourage Republicans from grinding the chamber to a halt).

* Boehner likely to hang on as Speaker: Today the House votes to pick its Speaker for the new Congress, and Caitlin Huey-Burns tallies up the situation: Though Boehner has had a very rocky tenure, it looks as if even those House members who opposed the fiscal deal are likely to support him. With no real challenger emerging, it looks like Boehner will win another two years. Of course, the question remains: Why would anyone want this job?

* And behold Boehner’s rocky tenure: Dana Milbank has a brutal takedown of Boehner’s Speakership, with the Hurricane Sandy debacle serving as the perfect coda to a tenure that demonstrated that the Tea Party wing still rules the House GOP.

What else?

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.