Why Republicans caved on the debt ceiling

January 18, 2013

Days after President Obama held a press conference re-asserting his refusal to negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling, House GOP leaders announced Friday they would move to extend the country's credit limit for another three months.


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (left) and House Speaker John Boehner.

Democrats quickly declared victory, insisting that Obama's hardline stance had cowed a divided GOP into a concession that just a few weeks ago they insisted they would not make.

But in conversations this afternoon with the Fix, Republican party strategists insisted that pushing the debt ceiling fight back to mid-April was a strategic gambit designed to maximize their leverage on several major budgetary fights between now and then.

"Republicans have to do a better job of picking our fights," said one prominent Republican consultant. "So, we need more concern about the impact of Obama’s reckless spending before we fight with a guy who controls the bully pulpit."

As one senior House Republican aide explained it, putting the debt ceiling after the sequester (the series of automatic, across the board cuts that will kick in unless Congress acts to cut spending on its own) and insisting that the Senate produce a budget before April 15 or not be paid shifts the terms of the debate in a favorable way  for Republicans.

"In the fiscal cliff fight, the president had greater leverage because current law was on his side," said the aide, noting that if nothing was done on the cliff taxes would have gone up on all Americans. By contrast, the aide added, "in the sequestration fight, we have greater leverage because current law is on our side" -- meaning that if Congress fails to act the automatic spending cuts kick in.

It's an interesting -- and smart -- gambit by House Republicans who have done very little interesting or smart in terms of political strategy of late.

The simple fact is that trying to go toe to toe with President Obama is a loser for the GOP at the moment. In a Washington Post-ABC News national poll released earlier this week, 55 percent of those tested approved of the job Obama was doing while just 24 percent said the same of House Republicans.

Add those numbers to the fact that Republicans have no obvious foil for Obama -- House Speaker John Boehner, who had been playing that role, was knee-capped by his own conference during the fiscal cliff negotiations -- and it's clear that Republicans are simply in no position at the moment to win a political fight with the president.

By postponing a potential debt ceiling showdown and instead making their stand on the sequester (and, to a lesser extent the continuing resolution that must be passed to fund the federal government) the Republican-controlled House pits itself against a less popular political entity: the Senate.

"We would like to open a fight against the Senate as opposed to Obama," said one senior GOPer. "[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has gotten off scot-free in terms of being held responsible for this out-of-control deficit and the breakdown of the budgeting process."

This strategic move by House Republicans is not without short-term and longer-term risks, of course.

In the near term, it isn't entirely clear that Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor can convince a majority of their GOP colleagues to vote for even a temporary increase in the debt ceiling.

While, as we noted above, such a move makes sound political sense, the death of Boehner's "Plan B" during the fiscal cliff fight -- a defeat led by tea party conservatives that guaranteed a worse bill would become law -- reveals that there is a significant group within the House GOP who prize moral victories over actual victories.

The longer term risk is that the terms of the economic debate either a) don't change much or b) move in Democrats' favor between now and April 15.  If the economy is showing signs of real growth by that point -- and it could be -- the perceived leverage that Republicans believe they have could well disappear.

Still, for a party with few good political options, putting off a fight over the debt ceiling with President Obama and instead picking a spending fight with the Senate is a sound choice. Now the question becomes whether Republicans can execute against the plan they have settled on.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · January 18, 2013