House Speaker John Boehner spoke at length with the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore about the coming confrontation over the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the spending cuts Republicans will try to achieve. Buried in the interview is a highly newsworthy nugget, in which Boehner implicitly admitted that the debt limit does not give Republicans the leverage they’ve suggested it does.

Indeed, it’s hard to read this exchange as anything other than a sign that Republicans may be backing off the fight over the debt ceiling:

I ask Mr. Boehner if he will take the debt-ceiling talks to the brink — risking a government shutdown and debt downgrade from the credit agencies — given that it didn’t work in 2011 and President Obama has said he won’t bargain on the matter.
The debt bill is “one point of leverage,” Mr. Boehner says, but he also hedges, noting that it is “not the ultimate leverage.” He says that Republicans won’t back down from the so-called Boehner rule: that every dollar of raising the debt ceiling will require one dollar of spending cuts over the next 10 years. Rather than forcing a deal, the insistence may result in a series of monthly debt-ceiling increases.
The Republicans’ stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs — defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

As Moore rightly notes, Boehner “hedged.” He acknowledged that the real leverage point Republicans have is not their threat not to raise the debt ceiling; now the GOP’s leverage lies in the Dem desire to avoid the spending cuts that will kick in as part of the sequester! Of course, half of those constitute defense cuts that Republicans, more so than Dems, oppose at any cost.

It’s true that Boehner insists above that Republicans won’t back down from the demand that spending get cut by the same amount as the debt ceiling rises. But all that really means is that they will use the size of the debt ceiling hike as a metric to set the amount of their spending cut demand — not that the threat of default will be used to extract those cuts. Remember, GOP leaders well know that if they do that, the entire business community will join with Obama and Democrats to tell them to back off or take the blame for cratering the economy, leaving Republicans further isolated. So Boehner is letting it be known that Republicans don’t see the debt ceiling as their primary leverage point in the battle to come.

Boehner does this by threatening to only agree to “monthly” debt ceiling hikes. But this should be read, if anything, as a sign of weakness. It’s essentially a concession that the debt limit has to be raised; Boehner is merely threatening to drag his feet as he allows the inevitable to happen. But it’s just nonsense. The business community is not going to go for such a course of action, to put it mildly. And it risks dragging the country through monthly threats of default, a terrible thing to inflict on the American people.

Ultimately, what this highlights is the utter incoherence of the GOP position on the debt ceiling. Republican leaders know they have to raise the debt limit — they know the threat not to do this isn’t credible, and they need to signal to the business community that they don’t view this option seriously — yet they want to continue to use it as leverage to get what they want, anyway. Hence Boehner’s above dance. And Boehner isn’t the only one:  On Face the Nation yesterday, when Mitch McConnell was asked directly whether Republicans would really withhold support for a debt ceiling hike if it weren’t paid for by spending cuts of equivalent size, he repeatedly refused to answer.

Boehner’s and McConnell’s equivocations will only embolden the White House and Democrats to stick with their strategy of refusing to negotiate over the debt ceiling, and treating the Republicans’ refusal to commit to raising it up front as their problem, and their problem only.