January 14, 2013

Over the weekend, the White House took the “platinum coin” off the table, effectively removing the last remaining escape hatch to avoid default without Congressional approval. The White House hopes this will increase pressure on Republicans by depriving them of the option of holding out for more spending cuts and daring Obama to take unilateral action. The idea is that this will leave the GOP with a stark choice between reaching a balanced deal and being seen as willing to destroy the economy to get its way.

Today we have the GOP response. Via Politico, GOP leaders are leaking word that their Tea Party members really are serious — really, they are! — about going into default if necessary, to force the White House to cut spending once and for all:

Republican leadership officials, in a series of private meetings and conversations this past week, warned that the White House, much less the broader public, doesn’t understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge. To the vast majority of House Republicans, it is far riskier long term to pile up new debt than it is to test the market and economic reaction of default or closing down the government.

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point.

Yeah, okay. The game here is: “Hey, we can’t control our crazies!!! Better give us what we want before they destroy us all!!!”

If anything, this underscores what a difficult spot John Boehner is in. Remember, Boehner is on record saying in 2011 that allowing default would mean “financial disaster” for the “world economy.” Even if it’s true that “more than half” of Republicans won’t support raising the debt ceiling unless it’s paired with draconian spending cuts, GOP leaders have the option of reaching a deal with the White House and passing it in the House with a lot of Democratic support.

If Boehner himself is already on record saying default will destroy the world economy, the substantive and political pressure on him to do this will be intense. Indeed, even some Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, are warning that failing to raise the debt ceiling will invite political Armageddon for the GOP. To be sure, as Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein has observed, passing more deals (after the fiscal cliff compromise) with Democratic support will further weaken Boehner. But this may be his only way forward. Indeed, if you accept the leaks to Politico at face value, it proves the only way forward for Boehner is to get this done with Democrats, whether he likes it or not.

Nice try, but this is still on Republicans. If they are going to continue to threaten the global economy to get their way, it’s their problem.

Of course, ultimately it’s up to the White House to maintain that posture. After the White House took the coin off the table, an argument erupted over whether this increased or decreased White House leverage. The White House case is that the GOP is now left staring into the abyss with no way out other than to compromise. Others, such as Paul Krugman, argue that this remains to be seen — that without the coin as a fallback, only the White House can make this true, by refusing to make concessions to economic suicide bombers. Only time will tell whether the White House is right, but for now, it appears to be sticking to its hard line.

* Why White House thinks it has leverage: Relatedly, Jonathan Cohn  makes the key point that if anything, the pressure on Republicans to agree to raise the debt ceiling will be more intense than it was in 2011:

Polls suggest that Republicans will take most of the blame for a prolonged showdown — and any economic consequences it brings. History implies the same. Approval ratings for congressional Republicans fell after the summer of 2011. Republicans had reason to risk the political backlash back then, because they knew that Obama, already facing a tough reelection battle, would feel it too. This time around, the calculus has to be different. House Republicans still have to run for reelection in two years. Obama has to run for reelection…never.

As I’ve been saying, it has been growing more and more apparent that the threat by House GOP leaders to default is largely an empty one. The White House believes that removing all options other than an eventual cave by Republicans will only make this clearer for all to see.

 * Harry Reid skeptical of assault weapons ban? Via Taegan Goddard (by the way, check out his new blog), the Wall Street Journal says the Senate Majority Leader is already expressing his doubts:

Senate leaders have offered assurances that gun-safety legislation will be among the first bills introduced, a Senate Democratic aide said. But Majority Leader Harry Reid already is expressing doubts about enacting an assault-weapons ban, which President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass.

As noted here previously, one option is to introduce provisions separately, to challenge Republicans to oppose gun reforms that have broad public support, such as universal background checks and a ban on high capacity magazines.

 * Obama to take gun reform case to the people: Also in the above link:

A senior administration official said a public campaign is planned to build support for the president’s gun-control initiatives.

One thing that’s been notable about the White House’s handling of this is the keen awareness that public sentiment in the wake of horrific massacres tends to dissipate quickly — which is why the anti-gun-control forces tend to try to stall and delay as a tactic. Obama officials appear determined to act quickly to prevent this from happening.

* More cracks in GOP wall of opposition: Steve Benen flags the latest Republican to signal openness to beefing up background checks: Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. As Benen notes, this demonstrates that the politics of the issue are changing.

 * White House executive action on guns planned: The Times details that the Joe Biden task force is considering executive action to crack down on people who lie on their background check forms. The NRA also supports this action, presumably as part of its effort to project concern about gun violence by calling mainly for better enforcement of existing laws. As always, this is a false choice: We can take this action while simultaneously pursuing other improvements.

Either way, this is yet another sign that the White House is serious about going around Congress if it is going to resist sensible gun law reform.

* Gun control a litmus test issue for Democrats? Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is set to push an aggressive package of gun reforms, becoming the latest state (after New York) to attempt an expansive governmental response in the wake of  the Newtown shooting. The political backdrop: O’Malley and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are both seen as contenders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and with guns high on the national agenda, a willingness to attempt ambitious reform may be a way to boost your profile among Dems nationally. 

* And White House plans major push on immigration: Julia Preston’s scoop yesterday is important, reporting that Obama and Democrats are prepared to move forward with a comprehensive package of immigration reforms as early as this spring.

The fact that they plan to introduce a sweeping measure, rather than a series of smaller ones, suggests the GOP may soon find itself under terrible pressure. This could potentially divide the party between its uncompromising base and more pragmatic GOP leaders who understand that its Latino problem poses a grave long term threat to its future.

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.