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Debt ceiling endgame comes into view

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This is a great catch by Jed Lewison. On MSNBC this morning, Rep. Greg Walden — a member of the House GOP leadership — would not directly answer when asked if the House would allow a vote on a debt ceiling hike without a majority of Republicans supporting it. If so, it could very well pass the House, mostly with Democratic support.

Little by little, you can see the outlines of a possible endgame coming into view. To be sure, things could still go very wrong for Dems, but there is a potential outcome favoring them that is looking more likely: Republicans quietly allow the debt ceiling to get detached from the other talks, while voting against raising it themselves.

There are two ways this could work. The first is that Senate Dems could put up the so called “McConnell provision” — the measure supported last year by the Senate GOP leader that would effectively transfer authority over the debt ceiling to the President — for a vote. Yesterday Obama asked Congress to give him this authority.

As you’ll recall, last year Mitch McConnell asked Harry Reid to hold a straight up or down vote on this provision, to bluff Dems, but was forced to filibuster his own proposal when it became clear that Dems had the unity to pass it. If Dems put this up for a vote again — and they should — virtually the whole strengthened Dem majority would likely support it. If McConnell filibusters again it’s possible Dems could get the 60 votes needed to overcome it.

Is that fanciful? Well, Senator Lisa Murkowski came out today for raising the debt ceiling, and it’s possible other moderate Republicans — such as Susan Collins and Bob Corker — could soon follow suit. A vote for the McConnell provision is easier than a vote to raise the debt ceiling, since this provision puts the onus of raising it on the president while simultaneously allowing Republicans to register symbolic disapproval of a hike. And the calls even among Republican allies for the GOP to remove the threat of default from the talks — which the McConnell provision would do — are mounting.

In this scenario, Dems pass the McConnell provision and send it to the House. Would John Boehner nix a vote on it? He would threaten to, and Republicans would make noise about amending it. But just as during the fiscal cliff fight (remember the empty bluster about changing the bill at the last minute?), it’s possible he’d ultimately bow to the inevitable and allow the vote. After which it would pass with mostly Dem support.

The second way this could happen is if Dems move to pass the debt ceiling hike on its own. I wrote about this yesterday, but in retrospect a push for the McConnell provision — which is an easier lift politically, for the reasons outlined above — looks more likely. Either way, what happens in each case is that Dems deal with the debt ceiling in the Senate, which then puts tremendous pressure on Boehner to allow it to get a House vote with little Republican backing. As noted above, Walden isn’t ruling out such an endgame.

Of course, there’s always the nightmare scenario for Dems: The House GOP does amend whatever the Senate sends over, attaches deep spending cuts, and tosses it back to the Senate with the clock ticking down. But the GOP has shown no appetite for proposing specific cuts of serious magnitude, and this threat turned out to be an empty one during the fiscal fight. The same could happen again. The most likely endgame right now looks to favor Dems.