Are Republicans ready to surrender on the debt ceiling again?

One of the more consequential bits of news last week came in the form of a letter to congressional leaders from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warning that the government would run out of money to pay its bills absent a debt-ceiling increase by late February or early March.

So today we’ve seen a string of stories wondering if Congress will almost immediately be pulled (yet again) into a protracted debt-ceiling fight when it returns from holiday break. This would likely throw the body into chaos and delay progress on a variety of urgent matters — from finalizing a farm bill, to getting started on immigration reform, to potentially extending long-term unemployment benefits. And that’s not to mention the well-established damage that these debt-ceiling fights have on the economy.

U.S.Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) speaks about his deficit-reduction plan during a media availability in the Capitol in Washington July 18, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS HEADSHOT)

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

But there are some signs that Republican backbones may be weakening when it comes to the debt limit. On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) didn’t sound like someone who views the debt ceiling as a useful fight, despite being a noted deficit hawk:

“I can’t really speak for Republicans. My thoughts are, the American people don’t think we have a debt ceiling. Because we always increase it, and they don’t believe we have the discipline in Washington—there is a positive out of what happened last week. Yeah, we can come together and agree. What, David, I would say to you that the reason we’re in trouble on deficits and debt is not because we didn’t agree, but because we did,” he said.

These remarks are a little hard to parse, but the National Review asserted today that Coburn plainly “hinted on Sunday that Republicans will give in to Democratic demands.” That may be over-reading him a bit, but he certainly didn’t call for a fight.

Of course the Democratic position — stated emphatically by Sen. Chuck Schumer on the same program — is that Democrats will not negotiate on the debt-ceiling, period. Schumer went so far as to openly call the GOP’s bluff. “I would predict that Republicans will back off any hostage taking, adding extraneous, irrelevant issues to the debt ceiling,” Schumer said. I understand there is some saber-rattling right now by Speaker [John] Boehner and Minority Leader [Mitch] McConnell. And that’s natural.”

Schumer is surely right that swords are being rattled, and not just by backbenchers. Even Rep. Paul Ryan has been calling for negotiations, and he went so far last week as to call for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in exchange for a debt-limit increase. (That is truly a ridiculous proposition: What on earth does the pipeline even ostensibly have to do with the national debt?)

Ryan made his remarks to far-right radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, so maybe Schumer is right and Ryan and company are just fluffing the base and won’t actually blow up the economy.

But the danger is that Republicans can take that too far. By most accounts, holding the debt ceiling hostage to a repeal of the health-care law was also just saber-rattling — until suddenly it wasn’t. GOP politicians can only promise something to the grassroots so many times before the base demands it, and so while people like Coburn may be trying to pump the brakes a little bit, they’re still behind the wheel of vehicle they aren’t able to totally control.

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