If there was any doubt after the government shutdown and last protracted battle over the debt ceiling, this cave from Republicans should make it clear: The debt ceiling is no longer a legitimate political weapon.
House Speaker John Boehner will bring a “clean” debt-ceiling increase to the floor on Tuesday night. For Republicans, it completes an epic swing in positions from 2011, when they first made the debt-ceiling increase a major vehicle to try to force spending cuts from President Barack Obama and Democrats.
Consider the swing: In 2011, Boehner established the rule in his namesake — “the Boehner rule,” which required a dollar in cuts for every dollar raised in the debt ceiling. In 2013, the Boehner rule is dead. And in the end, even before Republican leaders conceded and said they would allow a “clean” hike to come to the floor, Republicans were talking about spending increases that would be attached with the bill.
It got to the point last week, when House leaders were considering a method called “pension smoothing” as a “pay-for” on debt-ceiling-related provisions, that some Democrats were left baffled. Because, as a Senate Democratic aide explained, every Senate Democrat had voted for the method as a “pay-for” on an extension of unemployment insurance the previous day.
“Every single Senate Democrat voted for pension smoothing yesterday as a pay-for on UI. I don’t know how Boehner is pitching this to his caucus — if we need to participate in the kabuki that they’re ‘really getting one over on us’ with something we’re actually fine with in order to avoid a worldwide financial calamity, then so be it,” the aide said.
The dismantling of the debt ceiling as a weapon goes back to the fiscal cliff fight of late 2012, when Obama said that he wouldn’t negotiate again with the full faith and credit of the U.S. on the table. He would not normalize that negotiation. That became the Democratic line, and they stuck to it. They have been remarkably unified in their stance, and it has largely worked in diffusing the threat.
Last January, House Republicans attached a “No Budget, No Pay” provision to a debt-limit suspension. In October, when Republicans agreed to reopen the government and suspend the debt ceiling again, there were no strings attached.
Democrats knew that, even though Republicans didn’t want a fight over the debt ceiling this time, they had backed themselves into a corner. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, time after time called Republicans’ bluff on the issue.
“As you all know, they have tried this before, and the bottom line is the story always ends with a debt-ceiling increase,” Murray wrote in a late January memo to colleagues.
Democrats stuck to their position, while Republicans spent the better chunk of a month deciding what to do. When they finally did decide, it underscored how debt-ceiling brinksmanship is no longer a winning issue for the splintered caucus.
Republicans couldn’t even unify around two legislative priorities — approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline or repeal of a provision of the Affordable Care Act — because too many members of the caucus oppose a debt-ceiling increase on principle.
They eventually settled on a restoration of military pension benefits as an add-on to the debt-ceiling increase. But that couldn’t garner enough support, either, because conservatives realised that the vehicle they used to enact $US1.2 trillion in cuts just 2.5 years ago was now being used to advance spending increases.
As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, told Business Insider late last month: “That’s the risk of painting yourself in a corner with no exit strategy.”
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