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Opinion On debt ceiling, GOP is defining extortion down

Until today, it was not certain whether Republicans would stage another showdown over the debt ceiling. They were said to be thinking about it, but reports carefully noted no decision had been made. However, as Brian Beutler reports, Mitch McConnell today publicly confirmed that it’s on.

“I think I can speak for every single Republican that we think a request of any president to raise the debt ceiling in the future should involve a discussion with whoever the president is about what we might do about the debt,” McConnell said, adding:  “We are going to insist that we have another discussion about the future of our country in connection with the request of us to raise the debt ceiling.”

As Beutler notes, this is not an explicit declaration that Republicans will refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless they get the spending cuts they want. But it is certainly a threat to do this.

Pay close attention to how this is covered. In a very general sense, the shrugs that greet the prospect of another debt ceiling fight suggest Republicans are successfully redefining the withholding of support for a debt limit hike as not agreeing to concessions requested by Democrats. In other words, Republicans won’t give Democrats the debt ceiling hike they want unless they get spending cuts in return.

But raising the debt ceiling is not merely giving Democrats something they want. It is averting a threat to the economy and to the whole country. Top Republicans have admitted this. As Steve Benen recently documented, during the last debt ceiling battle John Boehner readily admitted that default would mean “financial disaster” for the global economy.

Indeed, the mere threat of brinksmanship itself, let alone default, is potentially damaging. During the last debt ceiling fight Standard and Poors downgraded U.S. government debt before default occurred — partly because of the mere fact that Congress was fighting over whether to raise it.

But McConnell and Boehner believe the threat of damage to the economy is a perfectly legitimate lever to use to get what the GOP wants. McConnell has said that the 2011 fight taught Republicans that the debt ceiling was a “hostage worth ransoming” to extract spending cuts. Recently, Boehner reportedly responded to Obama’s request for a debt ceiling hike by saying: “There is a price for everything.”

This is not business as usual, in which each side is demanding concessions from the other. In this case, one side is asking for concessions in exchange for not hurting the whole country, and spinning any eventual agreement not to do that as a concession on their part. It’s a remarkable maneuver, when you think about it.