Some Republicans seem to believe they have a clever endgame in the debt ceiling fight: The House GOP passes a bill that includes a debt limit hike and deep cuts to entitlements, and then goes home, challenging Senate Dems and the White House not to pass it, which would stick them with blame for default. Karl Rove floated a variation of this recently, as have some left leaning writers such as Brian Beutler.
But Dems have a response: Senate Democrats can simply amend such a bill, turning it into a clean debt ceiling hike. “They could simply strip out the spending cuts and increase the debt limit, and kick it back to the House,” Congressional expert Norm Ornstein told me. This would renew pressure on House Republicans to allow a vote on passing the debt ceiling hike on its own.
You might expect that if Senate Dems did this, Senate Republicans would filibuster it. But Ornstein, for one, says it’s quite possible they wouldn’t. Remember, Senate Republicans have been more reluctant than House Republicans to use the debt limit as leverage. You could see a situation similar to the fiscal cliff fight, in which Mitch McConnell, unlike the House, recognized political reality and entered into genuine negotiations with the White House. “There’s a strong possibility that Senate Republicans would not filibuster this and that would put the onus back on the House,” Ornstein says. “McConnell’s statements not withstanding, I don’t think Senate Republicans are all that eager to use the debt limit as a hostage this time.”
It’s true that a single Senate conservative could filibuster the bill. But it’s possible Dems could get 60 votes to overcome that. If the debt ceiling deadline looms, and if the business community bears down hard, demanding the GOP avert the destruction of the economy, you could see moderate Republicans, such as Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Bob Corker, support a hike. “You could imagine even people like Tom Coburn saying, `This is not the way to go,’ particularly if McConnell doesn’t stage a party-wide filibuster,” Ornstein says.
But John Boehner would never allow a vote on a clean debt limit hike, and it could never pass the House anyway, right? Well, not necessarily. Again, think back to the fiscal cliff deal. Boehner did allow a vote in the end, rather than allow the GOP to take the blame for taxes going up on all taxpayers. In this case, taking the blame for destroying the economy would be far more terrifying, and again, the business community would be bearing down hard. So Boehner just might allow a vote. And since it would get overwhelming Democratic support, it would only need two dozen House Republicans to break in order to pass — which very well could happen. Boehner could tell the Tea Partyers that the GOP can’t afford the political hit of default and that their real leverage rests in the coming expiration of the sequester. Indeed, Boehner has hinted at this already.
On top of all this, Obama’s press conference today, in which he again reiterated that there will be no negotiating around the debt limit, suggests he’ll be publicly cranking up the pressure in the days ahead. “If Congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans benefits will be delayed,” Obama said today. Polls show Obama is far more trusted than Republicans right now, which could further increase the sense of pressure to cave on the debt limit.
Indeed, Ornstein says Senate Dems might even just undertake to pass a clean debt limit hike without any House GOP bill to amend. As Ornstein puts it: “There is a scenario in which Dems can force a clean debt limit hike.”
UPDATE: A Senate Democratic leadership aide tells me this is under consideration, emailing this:
“It’s a strategy that would depend on help from moderate Republicans in the Senate to get the bill over the 60 vote hump that would come from a tea-party driven filibuster. So the biggest question is which Senate Republicans, when faced with default, would join with Democrats to pass a bill to avoid economic calamity?”