The Morning Plum: The secret GOP plot to salvage victory, or at least postpone defeat

October 11, 2013

Today House Republicans will roll out their plan for a six-week debt ceiling hike, and the general tone in Washington is that the prospects for a “deal” have brightened. But if you dig deeper into this emerging deal, it becomes obvious the core disagreement driving this whole dispute remains entirely unresolved — and that Republicans remain fully committed to the posture that caused this crisis in the first place.

The reporting today suggests Republicans will continue to insist Dems enter into formal talks on spending and debt as a precondition to lifting the debt limit. On the surface, that seems like standard Washington posturing. Republicans want to be able to say they won something — we forced Democrats to come to the table to deal! — in exchange for a debt limit hike, which they are defining (falsely) as a big concession. But Republicans are privately confiding that a lot more is at stake than merely “saving face.” Here’s how they describe the situation to David Drucker:

For House Republicans, the fight over the debt ceiling isn’t just about fiscal reform. The battle that spawned a government shutdown is also very much about preserving the GOP majority’s relevance in future policy debates.

At issue isn’t whether House Republicans should accept a bad deal to raise the federal borrowing limit and ensure the U.S. does not default on its $16.7 trillion debt. Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations.

That has only reaffirmed to House Republican leaders — who wanted to avoid a government shutdown — that they have no choice but to stand their ground on the debt ceiling. Surrounded by a hostile White House and Senate, and with few legislative avenues beyond borrowing and spending bills to impose their agenda, Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess.

For Republicans, simply agreeing to raise the debt limit, without getting anything in return, represents a surrender of their ability to use future debt limit deadlines as leverage in policy disputes. This gets at precisely the crux of the disagreement between the two parties.

Democrats believe standard policy negotiations should proceed outside a context in which the threat of harm to the country — whether through default or a continued government shutdown — gives one side unilateral leverage. Republicans want to retain that leverage; indeed, they see it as crucial to the House’s “institutional authority,” at least while they are in control of it.  But even if you accept this definition of the House’s “institutional authority,” Democrats believe that what’s at stake here is governing norms, and that if they aren’t restored, this cycle will repeat itself, making future default and widespread economic destruction all but assured.

Republicans will argue they are removing the threat of default from the discussions, at least temporarily. But they continue to insist the government remain shut while these talks proceed, damaging the economy, and Politico’s report on the GOP proposal gets at the heart of the matter: “There’s no guarantee Republicans would stop using the debt limit as leverage in the future and Obama could find himself in the same position once the temporary extension expires.”

A lot of this turns on the fudgability (if that’s a word) of what constitutes Dems “agreeing to talks.” Surely there are ways Dems might agree on some kind of resolution to enter into talks later — a statement of intent — that would not constitute giving Republicans anything in exchange for lifting default threat conditions. In this outcome, Republicans would be essentially raising the debt limit cleanly while calling it a partial victory by claiming they forced Dems to the table.

But Dems need to be very cognizant of the fact that Republicans are fully intent on holding on to the debt ceiling as leverage to extort concessions in the future. If they agree to anything that actually cedes something real in exchange for a debt limit hike — such as real talks under threat conditions — they will have merely postponed the inevitable need to win the larger argument that has paralyzed the system.

* ARE REPUBLICANS ALSO SET TO AGREE TO REOPEN GOVERNMENT? Politico suggests as much:

House Republicans told Obama at the White House that they could reopen the federal government by early next week if the president and Senate Democrats  agree to their debt-ceiling proposal. After the debt ceiling is lifted, a House GOP aide said they would seek some additional concessions in a government funding bill.

I’m skeptical that House Republicans are anywhere near supporting a “clean CR.” This looks like more of the same — demanding concessions in exchange for both lifting the debt ceiling and reopening the government. We need to see their proposal, of course.

 * COINAGE OF THE DAY, JOHN BOEHNER EDITION: Ron Brownstein dubs John Boehner a “SINO,” i.e., a “Speaker In Name Only.” (Update: It turns out the “SINO” label was first coined by Steve Benen.)

* GOP BASE’S “BOTTOMLESS ALIENATION” IS THE PROBLEM: The rest of Ron Brownstein’s argument is well worth reading, too:

The reason the most confrontational congressional Republicans have seized the party’s controls is that they are most directly channeling the bottomless alienation coursing through much of the GOP’s base….the kamikaze caucus, by seeking to block the president by any means necessary, is reflecting the back-to-the wall desperation evident among grassroots Republicans convinced that Obama and his urbanized, racially diverse supporters are transforming America into something unrecognizable. Although those voters are split over whether the current tactics will work, they are united in resisting any accommodation with Obama.

As Brownstein notes, however, a sizable bloc of Republican voters disagrees with this approach — but they are not the ones exerting influence over the leadership.

* BRUTAL POLLING FOR GOP: Bernstein mentioned this last night, but I wanted to stress how rough the new NBC/WSJ poll is for Republicans. Americans blame them for the shutdown by 53-31; 70 percent disapprove of the Congressional GOP; and an abysmal 24 percent view the GOP favorably, even as Obama’s standing is holding steady. Dems lead the House ballot matchup by eight points.

It still seems highly unlikely that this tells us much about 2014, but if it leads GOP insiders to conclude that the party is sustaining terrible damage in the shutdown fight, it could conceivably push lawmakers into finding a way out.

* PAUL RYAN’S STOCK RISES IN BUDGET BATTLE: Jonathan Weisman has an interesting look at how Paul Ryan is rising among fellow Republicans as his plan for a way out of the fiscal mess — trade a debt ceiling hike for entitlement cuts and tax reform — is now becoming the GOP exit strategy. The key here is that Ryan’s been able to do this precisely because his plan sidelines the conservative obsession with making Obamacare central to everything (which, of course, is angering the right).

Also of note: “Democrats believe that when Mr. Ryan drafts a plan, he can actually deliver the votes. They hold no such confidence in Mr. Boehner.”

 * DEBUNKING DEFAULT DENIALISM: Glenn Kessler has a useful piece debunking the pat notion that Treasury can avoid default, even in the event of a debt ceiling breach, by prioritizing interest payments to Wall Street and foreign investors. As Kessler notes, that may not even be possible in practical terms, and even if it were it still poses a serious danger to the economy.

Putting that aside, is the argument here really that Dems should fork over massive unilateral concessions to Republicans in order to ensure that Social Security recipients get their checks along with foreign bondholders?

* INSIDE JOHN BOEHNER’S STRATEGY: Eugene Robinson makes a good point: Boehner may be pushing us to the brink to make the case to conservatives later that he fought the good fight for as long as possible, mitigating the fallout from any cave:

The longer the crisis goes on, the more Boehner is able to claim battle-forged solidarity with the conservatives who once thought him weak and wobbly. If Boehner wins any concessions at all, he will trumpet them as a great victory. If he gets nothing, he will have led his troops valiantly into battle against all odds.

That was Boehner’s strategy in previous confrontations, but the question remains: will anything but a continued total war posture – one that accepts the need to drag the country into default, if necessary – be enough?

* AND OBAMA MAY HAVE TO IGNORE DEBT LIMIT: If Republicans don’t defer default, Paul Krugman spells out the choice the President faces:

Many legal experts think there is another option: One way or another, the president could simply choose to defy Congress and ignore the debt ceiling. Wouldn’t this be breaking the law? Maybe, maybe not — opinions differ. But not making good on federal obligations is also breaking the law. And if House Republicans are pushing the president into a situation where he must break the law no matter what he does, why not choose the version that hurts America least?

All signs are, however, that the White House believes the only route out is to force Republicans to cave, because it doesn’t believe extraordinary measures are legal and thinks ending this extortion precedent is imperative.

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.
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Jonathan Bernstein | October 10, 2013