October 10, 2013

House Republican leaders just rolled out their new plan for a way out of the crisis: A temporary debt limit hike, through November 22nd, coupled with a demand that Democrats enter into budget talks. The government would remain closed.

The White House has said it is open to a short term debt limit increase, as long as it remains clean. However, in a statement today, a White House official reiterated that no negotiations would take place unless Republicans agree to a clean debt limit hike and to reopening the government.

Here’s the core point that remains unclear. Will Republicans agree to lift the debt limit temporarily and cleanly if Democrats don’t agree to enter into negotiations?

I put that question to a House GOP leadership aide. His answer: “We’ll see.”

For all practical purposes, what this means is that we still don’t know whether the House GOP plan to raise the debt limit temporarily is conditioned on what Democrats do. In other words, Republicans still appear to be trying to use the debt limit as leverage to force Dems to enter into talks, without the government getting reopened — even as they are suggesting they may be willing to raise it temporarily.

It’s also unclear how these talks would be structured, in the sense of whether they would be tied to any future raising of the debt limit. The embrace by House Republican leaders of a temporary debt limit hike would appear to indicate that they are not prepared to allow default under any circumstances. But Paul Ryan reportedly told Republicans in a closed door meeting yesterday that the next debt limit hike would be contingent on how much in spending cuts Dems are willing to concede.

At their presser today, House GOP leaders didn’t offer any clarification on how (or whether) the talks they desire would be tied to any future debt limit hike.

On CNBC this morning, Chuck Schumer gave the idea of a temporary debt limit hike the thumbs down, but didn’t rule out supporting it. “We prefer it to be much longer — the longer the better,” he said. “If they’re already admitting that we should raise the debt ceiling without these political fights that they’ve been causing, then why not just do it for a good period of time, and get it out of the way.”

A lot of folks appear to be conflating two things right now: the question of whether the White House would sign a clean debt limit hike, however temporary, and the question of whether the White House would enter into talks in exchange for a short term hike. If the White House is willing to accept the former, that doesn’t mean it’s willing to accept the latter, i.e., talks that would proceed with both the closed government and a future debt limit hike giving Republicans leverage. The answer to the second one appears to be No.

The truth is that we still don’t really know what the House GOP plan is at this point. There is still a good deal of ambiguity around the core question here: Will Republicans raise the debt limit without conditions (such as Dems entering into talks), or won’t they? It’s in the Dems’ interest to force an answer to that question. If the answer is Yes, that confirms — once and for all — that Republicans are not willing to allow default. Provided Dems don’t agree to enter into talks, all that will have happened is that the threat of default as leverage will have been removed from the equation.

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