What the president was puffing about on Monday — that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling — is, to be blunt, silly. Raising the debt ceiling has virtually always been negotiated within the context of spending reforms because no member of Congress likes to vote for a “clean” debt-ceiling bill. Not even Democrats.

Gordon Gray at the conservative American Action Forum writes:

In the last 20 years, the United States has enacted 17 increases in the debt limit. Of those 17 increases, 3 were stop-gap measures: a temporary increase with a scheduled fallback in the absence of superseding increase (P.L. 103-12), and two increases that allowed for uninterrupted operations of the Social Security program (P.L. 104-103, P.L. 104-115). Of the remaining 14 “permanent” increases, all but 3 were either passed as part of other legislation or pursuant to a now-repealed rule that precluded a vote in the House of Representatives, the so-called “Gephardt Rule.”

These occurred in 2002 (P.L. 107-199), 2004 (P.L. 108-415), and 2009 (P.L. 111-123). It should be noted that the increase in 2009 occurred immediately following the Senate passage of the president’s health law on Christmas Eve, and was the last vote by the Senate in the 1st session of the 111th Congress.

The balance of the debt-limit increases in the last 20 years were included as part of other legislation, such as the Budget Control Act and the Balanced Budget Act.

Now the president wants to do what has not been the custom and practice for two decades and what his own members likely would not embrace (hence the letter from Senate Majority “Leader” Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pleading with Obama to do his job for him). In his public hissy fit, the president was essentially telling us, as Kirsten Powers elegantly paraphrased it, “if you don’t go his way, you like to starve children.” He is counting on the actual or willful ignorance of the media to carry his “Republicans are behaving outrageously” message.

Republicans should ignore the play-acting and figure out what they want to do. Officials in GOP leadership offices tell Right Turn that discussion is ongoing and the added time to try to keep everyone on the same page is well worth it. Long before Obama’s press conference, Republican leadership was figuring out that tying spending cuts directly to the debt ceiling was likely a loser, as previous confrontations have been. But that doesn’t mean the GOP gives up leverage; it simply needs to shift the battle to somewhat safer ground.

Republican think-tankers and pundits have suggested a number of alternatives, which involving “giving” the president what he wants by forcing Democrats to vote for a short-term debt-ceiling increase and then proceeding with a spending-reduction package that would shift to the sequester and continuing resolution (CR) deadlines. Keith Hennessey lays out an approach that comes down to this:

On the debt limit, state loudly and repeatedly a simple principle: We will pay our bills on time and we will cut future spending. Rather than being against a debt limit increase unless it also cuts spending, say that you’re for a debt limit increase that also cuts spending. … Pass a bill out of the House that raises the debt limit and cuts spending. Make it a short-term extension, maybe 3-6 months, and cut spending by a similarly modest amount. Take whatever big spending cuts you want and make them conditions of extending the Continuing Resolution. Threaten to shut down the government rather than to make the government risk not paying its bills on time. It’s a less damaging and therefore more credible threat.

Propose specific entitlement spending cuts to substitute for the sequester cuts you don’t like (presumably in defense). On this one sit and wait for Democratic nondefense appropriators to panic. You won’t have to wait long.

For the sequester he recommends that Republicans come up with alternative entitlement reforms (to a certain extent, the House already went through this exercise). Give the president a long-term debt extension only in exchange for significant entitlement reform. Otherwise, this process gets repeated over and over.

What if the president still threatens to veto? Republicans can tell the president that House and Senate Democrats can, Hennessey argues, “pass a clean short-term debt-limit extension, but they’ll all have to vote for it, every three months or so. Watch the ensuing panic in the House Democratic caucus with amusement.”

There are lots of potential problems here, including doubt that Republicans would really shut down the government (even when default is not at issue) and the House Republicans’ refusal to think two steps ahead (hence the defeat of the speaker’s Plan B in the “fiscal cliff” fight). But they don’t have obvious alternatives that are better. Whatever the arrangement, I would suggest the Republicans adhere to a few simple guidelines:

  • Make clear that the GOP will not default.
  • Make clear that the House will pass its measures (both a short-term debt extension and a package of spending cuts) and send it to the Senate.
  • Any negotiation with the White House should occur only after the Senate acts.

Remember: The House can block the worst of the president’s ideas but is limited in what it can push through; small steady steps are better than a conflagration.

And if the president insists on some revenue, then House Republicans can throw in loophole-closing of the very items the White House insisted be put into the fiscal cliff deal.

In this way, the House will have discharged its duty to extend the debt ceiling and put out a set of spending cuts.

In addition to the loophole-closing mentioned above, the GOP should not shy away from tax reform, which was to have been the basis of the first grand bargain back in 2011. Whether under the budget plans of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or some other plan, Republicans should embrace tax simplification and broadening the tax base. If it spurs growth and additional revenue (as the Democrats want), it’ll be all the easier to make the deal. But tax reform (even as a revenue-enhancer) is something Republicans want, if only to get the government out of the business of picking winners and losers and distorting investment and hiring decisions.

In the end, however, the election results dealt the GOP a tough hand, and it can only make gains by staying united and avoiding overreaching, neither of which they have done very successfully of late.