January 18, 2013

The news of the morning is that House Republicans, at their retreat, are seriously weighing whether to agree to a short term debt limit increase. The idea appears to be that this would defer default and let Republicans stage another battle to get the spending cuts they want in a couple of months, when the deadline for the sequester looms.

At that point, the threat of default would again loom and again enter into the discussions somehow. But make no mistake: this is a major cave. It is further indication that the GOP simply isn’t willing to allow default. It reveals yet again that this whole debt ceiling hostage taking strategy is proving a major failure: After all, if you’re not willing to default, then you’re admitting the debt ceiling doesn’t give you any leverage. So why threaten to use it to get what you want in a couple of months? How will things be any different then?

As Jonathan Chait puts it: “You have to ask yourself what the point is. If Republicans can’t threaten to shoot the hostage, what do they gain by holding new debt ceiling votes every few months? It’s either leverage or it isn’t.” The willingness to adopt a short term increase confirms that it isn’t.

Either Republicans are demanding deep spending cuts to popular programs in exchange for not destroying the economy, or they aren’t. They have fudged on this point, because they know they can’t be seen doing the former; but if they confirm the latter, the jig is up.

As noted here yesterday, no amount of tweaking of this strategy will make it work. The problem is the strategy itself. Republicans can’t be seen to be willing to default, because it underscores their intransigence and recklessness. But the public has already figured out what the GOP is up to, and wants the party to be more compromising. In pursuing their uncompromising hostage strategy, Republicans are demonstrating plainly that they are pursuing an uncompromising hostage strategy. After all, Republicans themselves continue to claim that we mustn’t allow default — even as they simultaneously continue to claim that the threat of default gives them leverage to get what they want without compromising with Democrats!

In short: If you are going to use destructive threats to avoid compromising, people will figure out that you’ve adopted a destructive and uncompromising approach to governing, whether or not you are actually willing to follow through on those threats. The new NBC/WSJ poll finds that the GOP’s negative rating is at its highest ever record in this poll. Republicans are getting the blame for this mess, and they will get the blame again if they try to use the threat of default to avoid compromising in two months. The threat won’t constitute leverage in two months any more than it does now. What exactly does this temporary debt ceiling hike accomplish?

Release the hostage, Republicans.

UPDATE: Still more confirmation that the ruse has been exposed, from Senator John Cornyn:

“We will raise the debt ceiling. We’re not going to default on our debt,” Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

* Time to press red state Dems on guns: The New York Times reports that a number of red state Dem Senators up for reelection in 2014 will be a “likely impediment” to some, or even all, of Obama’s gun reform proposals. The sourcing in the story is unclear. But look at this, from Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu:

Noting her “strong” record of support for the Second Amendment, Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said: “That said, last month’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has become all too familiar. We must find a way to balance our Second Amendment rights with the challenges of mental illness, criminal behavior and the safety of our schools and communities.”

Not good enough. On the assault weapons ban, you can see why Senators might want to wait until we know what the actual legislation looks like before commenting. But Dem Senators must be pressed, hard, on whether they support the concept of universal background checks, as well as the common sense package of proposals designed to achieve it.

If these Democrats can’t muster up the courage to back such an obviously measured, sensible response — one that’s supported by huge majorities — then that’s simply unacceptable political cowardice on their part. I believe that in the end they’ll come around, but we’ll be covering this angle closely here.

* Massive public support for universal background checks: A newly-released Reuters poll finds that 86 percent of Americans support expanded background checks, while 74 percent favor a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. It’s an online poll, so treat it with caution, but these numbers are in sync with other surveys, particularly on background checks. Meanwhile, a new NBC/WSJ poll finds that 56 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws.

Again: Every member of Congress needs to be pressed on whether they support the specifics of these proposals, particularly universal background checks.

* The Senators to watch in the gun fight: National Journal has an interesting overview of the handful of Senators who could play a big role in determining what gets through Congress. Interestingly, two Republicans — Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine — are thought to be potential swing votes; getting them on record on universal background checks would be a good first step.

* Obama was right to go big on guns: Eugene Robinson gets this right: The notion that Obama’s gun package is inevitably doomed in Congress is wrong, wrong, wrong. One more time: Universal background checks, not the assault weapons ban, are the number one priority of gun control advocates. If Obama gets that along with some other stuff, and not the ban, that alone would be a major achievement. Obama was right to lay down an ambitious set of proposals as an opening marker.

* No, the Heller decision does not preclude regulating firearms: Also in the above link, the right loves to cite the Heller decision overturning the D.C. handgun ban, but…

Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the case that struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, recognized that government has the right to restrict ownership of “dangerous and unusual” weapons. I believe it’s abundantly clear that assault weapons fall into that category.

By the way: In the Heller decision, Scalia also wrote: “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” All clear now?

* The debt ceiling ruse is exposed: Charles Krauthammer acknowledged today that Republicans will have to “give in,” and Steve Benen rightly notes that the debt ceiling strategy is beginning to unravel:

Once everyone in Washington — Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Congress — realizes that GOP leaders aren’t prepared to allow a default on our obligations, the game is effectively over.

Also, as Benen notes, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a major fight looming over the sequester and potential government shutdown; there is. It’s just that the debt ceiling is no longer meaningfully a part of the talks.

* And no, the deficit is not our biggest problem: Few people in Washington seem to be willing to listen to this, but as Paul Krugman details today, the deficit is not the horrific long term threat to the country that the deficit scolds keep insisting it is:

They love living in an atmosphere of fiscal crisis: It lets them stroke their chins and sound serious, and it also provides an excuse for slashing social programs, which often seems to be their real objective. But neither the current deficit nor projected future spending deserve to be anywhere near the top of our political agenda. It’s time to focus on other stuff — like the still-depressed state of the economy and the still-terrible problem of long-term unemployment.

The definitive chart demonstrating this, courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is right here.

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.