August 27, 2013

Yesterday afternoon, the Treasury Department warned congressional leaders that we’ll hit the debt ceiling earlier than expected, probably in mid-October. Jonathan already has some smart analysis previewing the fights to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government, but this new timeline will also effect the other big issue awaiting Congress when it returns from the August recess: The effort to defund Obamacare.

GOP leaders know the scheme put forward by Ted Cruz and others to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded is hopeless, but they risk mutiny in their ranks if they don’t at least pay lip service to it.

So, as Jon Chait, Greg and others have pointed out, House Speaker John Boehner has been playing a familiar game of bait and switch with his base by promising to let House Republicans do something crazy in the future in order to get them to stop threatening to do something crazy now. He “treats his members the same way a gambler treats his loan shark. ‘C’mon, spot me again, I swear I’ll pay up next time!’” Brian Beutler quipped, noting that we’ve seen this same strategy play out again and again in numerous congressional fights.

In the case of Obamacare, House leaders have been trying to talk their members into claiming victory on sequestration cuts and abandoning the effort to defund the health care law. But assuming that won’t appease them (and it won’t), GOP aides have floated using the debt ceiling, instead of the government shutdown, as the bargaining chip. An aide to Eric Cantor told Reuters yesterday that the debt limit provides a good “leverage point” to try to force action on Obamacare.

Swapping the debt ceiling hostage for the government shutdown hostage, while even more dangerous, had the benefit of buying GOP leaders some time — or at least it did until the debt limit deadline got moved up.

Congress comes back into session on Sept. 9. It will have just three weeks to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1. Most people had expected Treasury to hit the debt limit in mid-November or even December, so Boehner could have played his standard game of kicking the apocalypse can down the road. He’d get the House to pass a continuing resolution by promising to use the debt ceiling to attack Obamacare later, and then he’d get a month or two to figure out how to defuse this newest crisis.

But Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s letter yesterday blows up this whole strategy. As Kevin Drum writes:

Politically, this means that Republicans don’t really have the option of quickly passing a 2014 budget (or a short-term continuing resolution) and then taking some time off to plan for their latest round of debt ceiling hostage-taking at the end of the year. If mid-October really is the drop-dead date, it means that budget negotiations in late September and debt ceiling negotiations in early October pretty much run right into each other.

Now, Boehner can’t keep bluffing to his members. Two weeks is not enough time for them to forget that they just caved on Obamacare, so they’re probably not going to be in the mood to do it again. This was John Boehner’s escape hatch, and now it’s closing

Besides, as Steve Benen notes, all the talk of hostage taking may be moot as the White House is holding the line against negotiations over the debt ceiling. “Let me reiterate what our position is, and it is unequivocal. We will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress over Congress’ responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has racked up, period,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday. “We have never defaulted, and we must never default. That is our position, 100 percent, full stop.”