Why Democrats are in the debt ceiling driver’s seat

No matter how you slice it, Democrats have the upper hand right now in the debate over the debt ceiling.


(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest evidence of their advantage came Tuesday when House Republicans were at odds over what to demand in exchange for raising the nation's debt limit. As The Post's Robert Costa and Ed O'Keefe reported, many of them wanted to see a debt ceiling increase linked to a key concession in the health-care law. Others were talking about linking it to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps most strikingly, some conservatives seemed resigned to the idea that a "clean" increase is inevitable.

A clean increase -- that is, one with no strings attached -- is what President Obama has long demanded. And so far, there is no reason for him to budge from that position. None. Republicans have not formulated a counteroffer. And it's possible they may not even be able to coalesce around one, given the competing positions in the GOP Conference and the ticking clock.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says the debt ceiling must be raised by the end of the month. If it isn't, Republicans stand to absorb more blame -- another key reason why they don't have the high ground. A recent CNN/ORC International poll showed that 54 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if the debt ceiling isn't raised, compared to just 29 percent who would blame Obama.

Even if House Republicans land on a negotiating position sturdy enough to win passage, Democrats would be left with a vehicle for resurrecting their arguments from the fall about Republican intransigence. Republicans' unwillingness to compromise during the government shutdown backfired badly on the GOP, polls showed. Democrats used it to their advantage. That is, until the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov overshadowed everything else and cancelled Democratic momentum.

But if Republicans adopt a hard-line stance once again, Democrats can dust off their talking points about GOP obstruction. Would they work? Maybe. But Democrats would sure be in a better position to make their case under that scenario than they would without it.

So, should Republicans simply call it a day now, and give in to Democratic demands for a clean increase? No. They can't. It could enrage the most conservative element of the party to see GOP leaders cave so easily. And it could threaten to undo the good will House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) won when he stood with his conference in the fight against Obamacare even when it looked clear that doing so would damage the party's image.

Republicans will keep trying for something -- unless and until that something looks impossible. Or undesirable.

Democrats meanwhile, don't have to do anything at the moment -- a sure sign they hold almost all the cards.

Fixbits: 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn't see a compromise on immigration on the horizon.

Sandra Fluke won't run for Congress.

A farm bill passed after three years of negotiations.

Americans For Prosperity went after Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) with a new TV ad.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist donated to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

A Republican poll shows a wide open race for the Republican Senate nomination in Georgia.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) are headed to New Hampshire.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) got another primary challenger.

Jay Leno cracked 4,607 jokes about Bill Clinton.

Must-reads: 

"With early attacks against Senate Democrats, AFP emerges as GOP’s most powerful ally" -- Matea Gold, Washington Post

"Andrews proposed 646 bills, passed 0" -- David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · February 4