The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Looks like we’re stuck with GOP game playing on debt limit

Over the last 24 hours, the White House and House Speaker John Boehner have traded proposals on the fiscal cliff. The most recent one from Obama involves $1.4 trillion in revenue — down from the original $1.6 trillion — and $200 billion more in spending cuts, bringing the total to $600 billion.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the administration’s original offer on the debt ceiling.

The mechanism proposed by the president requires him to notify Congress that he needs an increase in the debt limit. The increase wouldn’t need Congressional passage, but Congress could vote to disapprove, which the president could then veto. The country continues to pay its debts, opponents can vote against it, and everyone walks away satisfied.

Republicans immediately rejected this proposal, despite the fact that it was crafted, originally, by Mitch McConnell. Instead, GOP leaders insist on making the mistakes of last year, and using the debt ceiling as leverage for further spending cuts. CNN reports, for example, that John Boehner has not budged on the debt ceiling, saying that any increase must be matched by equivalent spending cuts. His allies in the Senate agree. Says Lindsey Graham of Obama’s proposal: “That’s going nowhere. He’s not king. He’s president.”

As opposed to taxes, where Republicans are on the wrong side of opinion, there’s a chance that they could rely on public support in the event of another debt ceiling fight. During last year’s crisis, for instance, a plurality of voters were against raising the ceiling — 42 percent said they opposed an increase, as opposed to the 22 percent who favored one.

But it’s worth reiterating how absurd the GOP position is, something that’s obscured by the language around the debt ceiling. Republicans talk about the limit as something that either permits or forbids spending, but in reality, it’s an accounting measure — it specifies how much the Treasury can borrow to pay its current obligations. The issue isn’t new spending, it’s whether or not the United States will pay debts based on funds already appropriated by Congress. If Republicans want to reduce spending, the proper time to do it is during the appropriations process.

The problem, of course, is that none of this will convince Republicans to yield. NBC News reports that the debt ceiling is “the biggest obstacle” to a deal right now:

More than taxes or entitlements, that issue appears to be the one that GOP leaders might have the hardest time convincing the rank-and-file to hand over to the Obama White House and Democrats in any kind of deal.

It’s not hard to understand why. As Greg has noted, the Republican caucus is dominated by lawmakers in incredibly safe seats, reelected by voters who are opposed to tax increases and to anything that looks like a spending increase, which includes lifting the debt limit. As long as that’s true, it makes a deal less likely — and ensures that GOP leaders will continue to threaten default as a negotiating tactic.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.