January 15, 2013

The obsession with the platinum coin has distracted media figures from what is a far more important story: The slow realization sinking in among Republicans and conservatives that they are losing the debt ceiling fight.

We’ve already heard from Newt Gingrich and the Wall Street Journal edit board that the threat of default puts the GOP in a terrible political position. John Boehner has admitted that the debt ceiling is not the party’s primary source of leverage in the fiscal talks. Mitch McConnell has refused to say whether he stands behind Boehner’s continued insistence (despite his acknowledgment of weak leverage) that any debt ceiling hike shouldn’t happen without spending cuts of the same magnitude.

Today, in another step forward, the National Review calls on Republicans to take the threat of default off the table:

Republicans should recognize that the prospect of default is the Democrats’ chief weapon in their campaign of avoidance. That prospect is not a source of Republican leverage in the debt-ceiling fight; it is the primary source of the Democrats’ leverage. It is a way to distract the press and the public from the reality of our fiscal crisis.

The Democrats’ strategy offers Republicans an opportunity. Since the Democrats insist that the prospect of default is the reason they will not negotiate about spending restraint, Republicans should begin the debt-ceiling fight by permanently eliminating that prospect, turning the debt-ceiling debate into an argument about future spending rather than past borrowing.

The House should pass a bill to redefine the debt limit so that it constrains primary spending but not debt service. Under this reform, a Treasury that had hit the statutory borrowing limit could continue to borrow what it needed exclusively for paying interest on the national debt and to roll over existing debt obligations, but it could not borrow for any other government spending until the limit had been increased. This would take default entirely off the table.

The policy suggestion here is a bit puzzling: As one Dem joked to me, is the idea that the GOP will only continue to threaten to prevent Congress from paying out things like Social Security and veterans’ benefits, but not interest payments? That aside, the core point here is that National Review is admitting that the threat of default gives the leverage not to Republicans, but to Democrats.

In making this concession, National Review is partially accepting the White House’s framing of the issue: That the GOP, not Obama, is the one faced with the dilemma here — i.e., Republicans must choose between, on the one hand, agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, and default and all that comes with it on the other. In other words, if Republicans are going to continue to threaten to destroy the economy, it’s their problem. It’s on them.

 * Obama plans executive actions on guns: New details emerge about what Obama’s gun task force will put forward: A major overhaul of the background check system, plus 19 items Obama can accomplish by executive action:

Actions the president could take on his own are likely to include imposing new limits on guns imported from overseas, compelling federal agencies to improve sharing of mental health records and directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence, according to those briefed on the effort.

The NRA and its minions in Congress will scream that this represents a heinous abuse of presidential power, but they would have done that no matter what gets proposed. The move to take unilaterally action clearly signals both an awareness of how difficult this battle will be, given current Congressional realities, and a willingness to take it on in a major way.

 * The changing politics of gun control: National Journal has some important new polling demonstrating that the emerging Democratic coalition of the future is fully behind gun law reforms. Dems are less reliant on rural voters and white males — constituencies that oppose gun laws — then ever before.

Also: As Alec MacGillis notes, the newfound emphasis on gun laws by Democratic governors gearing up to run for president in 2016 also demonstrates the changing politics of the issue.

* Obama throws GOP a debt limit lifeline: Good point from Jonathan Capehart: By suggesting Republicans adopt the provision favored in 2011 by Mitch McConnell, which would effectively transfer authority over the debt ceiling to the president, Obama was actually offering Republicans a way out of the debt ceiling impasse. The problem, of course, is that the Tea Party wing won’t countenance the GOP using this escape hatch — which may leave Dems no choice but to try to force a clean debt ceiling hike.

* What’s next in debt ceiling fight? Elizabeth Reeve has a good road map of the myriad possibilities that lie ahead. Obama again vowed yesterday not to negotiate with the GOP over the debt ceiling, and as Reeve details, there are ways he can hold to this posture, which will confront the GOP with a stark choice: Either Republicans agree to compromise, or be seen destroying the economy. Of course, only the President can ensure that this dynamic holds, by standing firm.

* A way Congress can resolve the debt ceiling mess: An interesting suggestion from Bloomberg View:

So here’s another way to end the fight: Tie spending decisions to automatic increases in the debt limit. The premise is simple — when Congress passes a budget resolution or spending bill, it should also authorize a concurrent increase in the statutory debt limit to pay for what it’s authorizing. This would have the added benefit of fostering fiscal restraint by linking spending decisions to the Congress that authorizes the money.

Of course, this would require the GOP giving up the opportunity to try to get what it wants by holding the nation’s economy hostage. What’s more, it would amount to an acknowledgment that raising the debt ceiling only means paying bills already incurred, which Republicans are working hard to obscure.

 * The damage done by debt ceiling brinksmanship: Joe Weisenthal has the latest: We could be looking at another downgrade. Expect the voices from the business community to grow louder and louder as default looms, a reminder of the degree to which this battle is exposing the divide in the GOP between its Tea Party and pragmatic business wings.

* Marco Rubio’s immigration play: Beth Reinhard looks at Senator Rubio’s new immigration plan and the warm welcome it’s getting from some GOP leaders. Rubio stresses that it does not create a path to citizenship. This underscores how deeply the coming immigration fight may divide the GOP, since genuine immigration reform has little chance of being accepted by the base, even as pragmatic party leaders recognize the need for a comprehensive effort to repair relations with Latinos.

* And meet the Sandy Hook Truthers: Alex Seitz-Wald has the latest on the damage being done by the conspiracy theorists who have decided that the Newtown shooting was a hoax designed to further the shadowy government plot to take all your guns away.

 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.