The debt limit timetable

John Boehner and the debt limit

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

We’ve known all along that the two big deadlines this fall were going to be the end of the fiscal year, at the end of September, and the debt limit. But we didn’t know exactly when the government would finally hit the debt limit. Now, we do: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote to Congressional leaders Monday to inform them that Congress needs to act by mid-October in order to prevent a debt limit breech and trigger unpredictable, but extremely dangerous, reactions in markets.

As Alex said this morning:

Before that news at some point, even John Boehner and other GOP leaders know they’re going to have to level with their base on Obamacare (it will not get defunded) and the debt ceiling (it will get raised) and government appropriations (it will get funded) — so when will they be brave enough to have that hard talk?

To be more specific: As I’ve been saying, what we do know is that there will eventually be a deal to raise the debt limit (and a deal to fund the government for the next fiscal year) that John Boehner supports and that Barack Obama can sign. What we don’t know is whether the debt deal will happen before or after a debt limit breach and whether a funding deal will happen before or after a government shutdown.

And you can be absolutely certain that not only John Boehner, but every other House Republican knows that eventually that deal will happen. The only wiggle room — outside of timing — is that they can agree to pass that deal with Republican votes, or else they can agree to pass it with mostly Democratic votes — although there’s certainly a possibility that Democrats will demand Republican votes, which itself can be subject to negotiation.

We also know — and Boehner, and Ted Cruz, and everyone else knows — that while a slim GOP majority in the House and a minority in the Senate does give the party some bargaining power, it simply doesn’t give them enough leverage to dictate terms on the debt limit or funding the government — even on the debt limit, where the White House position is that they won’t negotiate at all. That’s a perfectly fine position to take, but if Republicans actually had something to ask for that the president and the Democrats don’t care very much about, I suspect they could get it.

So the two questions now, as Congress gets ready to return and deal with this, remain: Will Republicans make these deals before or after a shutdown or a debt limit calamity? And will Republicans ever get around to figuring out a reasonable “ask” that they have a chance of getting? Those are the questions that are going to dominate the next few weeks, at least as far as budget talks are concerned. And we simply don’t know the answers. Indeed, I doubt if even John Boehner knows the answers, yet. But he might want to figure it out, soon.

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