Why we’re headed for more debt limit brinksmanship

at 12:07 PM ET, 05/16/2012

House Speaker John Boehner gave the political world a dose of deja vu on Tuesday when he said Republicans would again hold their ground when the debt limit again comes to a vote in 2013.

“We shouldn’t dread the debt limit,” Boehner said at the Peter G. Peterson Fiscal Summit. “We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction.”

Boehner said that he would again seek budget cuts commensurate with the debt limit increase and resist tax hikes -- basically the same posture that Republicans took last time.

The comments may seem odd to some, given the backlash against Congress and politicians that resulted from the government’s near-default in 2011. They could also be geared toward the 2012 race, in which Republicans are seeking to make President Obama’s stewardship of the deficit and debt a major liability.

But there’s plenty of reason to believe that Boehner isn’t just blowing smoke and that, in fact, a similar battle could indeed play out next year (complete with the kind off brinksmanship we saw last time).

To wit:

1. The likelihood of a split government.

There is an election between now and 2013 — one in which either side could conceivably gain control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress and have control over the debt limit process. But right now, the battle for the House, Senate and White House appear as though they will all be competitive, with Democrats having a fighting chance to re-take the House (Boehner has said as much), Republicans having a pretty good shot at reclaiming the Senate, and the presidential race polling as a toss-up.

And even if somehow one party does land all three, there’s still the filibuster threat in the Senate — something Republicans have shown they are more than willing to use. In other words, if Republicans want to dig in, there’s likely the be an avenue to do just that.

2. Neither side underwent irreparable harm last time.

Yes, the federal government as a whole paid a price, with Congress’s and President Obama’s approval ratings both reaching new lows.

But neither side squandered its chances in the 2012 election; each side paid a price, and each has a fair shot at victory this year. Hence, neither side has a huge incentive to back down the next time the debt limit comes up for a vote. Politics and elections, after all, are zero sum games. And if Americans Elect’s demise has shown us anything, it’s that a third party still isn’t a viable alternative.

3. The tea party is still relevant — in a way.

Yes, the tea party as an entity isn’t as front and center as it was after the 2010 election, but its ideals live on in the Republican Party.

If the Senate primaries in Indiana and Nebraska during the last two weeks showed us anything, it’s that Republican voters will still punish their establishment candidates for being insufficiently conservative. To be clear, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning both had other warts — the perception that Lugar had lost connection with his home state and Bruning’s personal financial issues, for example — but both also suffered from uncertainty over their conservative bona fides. And that was the starting point for the opposition in both races.

The increasing involvement from groups like the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund in GOP primaries should serve notice to Republicans that they need to watch their right flank at all times. It may not be the tea party, per se, waiting to take them down, but someone with similar values is.

(For example: The Club on Tuesday sent a message to GOP freshmen, noting that many of them haven’t voted the tea party line enough.)

4. The “supercommittee” failed.

Washington is known for these pass-the-buck gimmicks, and it provided a convenient out for Congress last time to task a so-called “supercommittee” with completing the budget-cutting work after the impasse. But the panel eventually failed, leaving Congress with some painful automatic cuts at the Pentagon and elsewhere.

Boehner made a point in his speech Tuesday to say that it wouldn’t happen again.

“As I told the president, ‘We’re not doing those things that way any more,’” Boehner said, repeatedly using the word “gimmicks.”

Assuming Congress and the American people won’t accept a similar gimmicky compromise the next time (which might be assuming too much), it will make coming to an agreement even more difficult. That increases the likelihood that the process will devolve into the the same kind of brinksmanship as last time.

In the end, it’s not hard to see a redux of the 2011 debt limit showdown in 2013. The political realities today might make it inevitable.

 
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