The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP disarray over debt ceiling

Here’s another sign that the debt ceiling doesn’t give the GOP the leverage it claims: You’re starting to see mixed messaging among Republicans about the way forward in the debt limit battle.

The latest: On MSNBC today, GOP Rep. Tom Cole — last seen breaking with the GOP leadership’s strategy on the fiscal cliff — dismissed the viability of one of John Boehner’s latest suggestions, i.e., the idea that Republicans might force monthly debt ceiling increases. Boehner had suggested the idea in an interview with Stephen Moore.

On MSNBC, Cole was asked whether he thought Boehner could still make good on the “Boehner rule,” which dictates that Republicans will insist on a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar the debt ceiling is raised. Cole said Boehner would make good on it. But then he was asked explicitly if he supported the idea of monthly increases. Cole replied:

“No, I actually think that’s a very short sighted way to do it. I would hope the president presents some sort of solution that’s much longer term than that.”

Cole put the onus on the president to come up with a long term resolution, and throughout the interview he repeatedly predicted Republicans would prevail and get the spending cuts they want, but he nonetheless described Boehner’s idea of “monthly” debt ceiling increases as a nonstarter.

The mixed messaging doesn’t end there. Over the weekend, Mitch McConnell was repeatedly asked if Republicans would insist on the aforementioned Boehner rule, which the House Speaker continues to describe as operative. McConnell repeatedly refused to say.

There’s still more. Boehner has now taken to saying that the GOP’s real leverage in the debt ceiling battle flows not from the debt ceiling, but from the threatened spending cuts in the sequester. But half of those are defense cuts, which Republicans are far more adamantly opposed to than Democrats are. Indeed, another influential Republican, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, is out there complaining that the sequester will mean “devastating and arbitrary cuts” that will leave the military “vulnerable.” This underscores that it’s far from clear that the sequester gives Republicans more leverage in the coming battle.

All of which points to what may be the most important fact about the whole debt ceiling fight: GOP leaders want to be granted the presumption of leverage based on the threat of default, yet they are not prepared to deliver on that threat. Even worse, they need to somehow signal publicly that they are not really serious about default as an option — otherwise the business community will come down on them hard — while simultaneously maintaining the public posture that the debt ceiling hike really is something Dems will need to pay for with concessions of their own.

The GOP’s debt ceiling threat is an empty gimmick — far more of a gimmick than the “platinum coin” solution to it is.