January 22, 2013

So the latest scheme advanced by House Republicans is to suspend the debt limit, rather than raise it, until May 18th. This will get a vote tomorrow, on the theory that this will be easier for House conservatives to support than an actual debt ceiling hike, even though they will functionally have the same effect.

Ezra Klein and Steve Benen make the crucial substantive point that if we can suspend the debt ceiling temporarily, we should suspend it permanently, to prevent this kind of brinksmanship from going wrong and wreaking economic havoc in the future.

The question now is how House Democrats react. My bet is that they will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, designed to force John Boehner to prove he can come up with the votes for it himself. It turns out this is anything but assured: John Harwood quotes one Republican member saying it’s far from certain that he has the votes, which would mean another “Plan B” fiasco and another blow to Boehner’s leadership.

It’s hard to imagine House Republicans won’t be able to get the votes to pass this extension, but really, at this point, it’s impossible to be prepared for what they’ll do. This could be seen by House conservatives as yet another cave — one coming after the fiscal cliff surrender — and this time, Republicans get absolutely nothing in exchange for backing down. So who knows.

And so here’s how this could unfold:

1) Dems let Boehner come up with the votes himself, to keep him twisting in the wind. Dems who want to vote against this can do so; those who want to support it will remain quiet for now, to force Boehner to get it done himself. If Boehner gets the votes, we’re out of trouble, and the fight moves on to the sequester and the government shutdown. If he doesn’t, then he’ll pull the bill, and that gives Dems even more leverage. Which will mean that…

2) Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid will then be forced to negotiate their own deal on a debt ceiling hike, perhaps even a long term one, or on the McConnell provision, which effectively transfers authority to the president.

3) McConnell could decide not to filibuster the deal he reaches with Reid, kicking it back to Boehner. Or he could filibuster it while quietly signaling to a handful of Republicans that they might go ahead and join Dems in breaking the filibuster. That way he can continue fulminating against Obama debt limit tyranny while quietly letting his caucus slip out of its jam.

4) Either way, the deal reached by Reid and McConnell — even if it’s long term, or if it’s the McConnell provision — gets kicked back to Boehner. With the business community coming down on him hard, and with the deadline looming, he allows a vote on it. Whereupon it passes the House with mostly Dem support.

The White House was cool to Boehner’s latest maneuver today, but didn’t rule out supporting it if there’s no other way out. So the strategy continues to be: If Republicans want to threaten havoc to the economy to get their way, it’s their problem.

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