Coming Soon! GOP federal debt ceiling Kabuki theater


The Septuagenarian Ninja Turtle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, took the country to the brink of defaulting on the national debt in 2011, resulting in a downgrade of the credit of the U.S. for the first time in our history. Now he is threatening to take the country hostage to the extortion ransom demands of the GOP again. Steve Benen reports, McConnell readies his debt-ceiling ransom note:

Debt-celing-hostage-crisis-2-what-now-468The debt-ceiling deadline has not yet arrived, but it looms on the horizon. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress recently that lawmakers have until Nov. 5 — three weeks from tomorrow — to extend the nation’s debt limit and prevent a default that would likely crash the economy. [Note: As of today, the Treasury moves up debt limit deadline to Nov. 3.]

President Obama has already made clear that he will not negotiate with economic terrorists those threatening to hurt Americans on purpose, just as he won’t make any demands of his own — Congress needs to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, and when it does, the president will put his signature on the clean debt-ceiling increase.

And yet, according to CNN, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already preparing his ransom note, telling the White House what Republicans expect the president to give up in exchange for GOP lawmakers agreeing to do what they have to do anyway.

Mitch McConnell privately wants the White House to pay this price to enact a major budget deal: Significant changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. […]

McConnell is seeking a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security recipients and new restrictions on Medicare, including limiting benefits to the rich and raising the eligibility age, several sources said. In addition, the Kentucky Republican is eager to see new policy riders enacted, including reining in the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean water regulations.

This doesn’t come as too big of a surprise. In 2011, in a quote that was largely overlooked at the time, then-Senate Minority Leader McConnell conceded that he saw the debt-ceiling crisis Republicans imposed on the country — hurting the economy and undermining America’s international standing — as a great idea. Once the ceiling had been raised and the crisis had passed, McConnell boasted about doing it again in the future, saying that Republicans learned this is “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

There is, however, a catch: these dangerous schemes only work if your rival believes you’re fully prepared to kill the hostage – and in this case, McConnell lacks all credibility.

Let’s back up for a minute. McConnell, like every other policymaker in Washington, realizes that the debt ceiling has to be raised periodically. It’s not optional – either the nation’s borrowing authority is increased or we default on our obligations. It’s as simple as that.

McConnell, however, apparently has a wish list. He’ll agree to do what needs to be done – what officials in both parties have always done for generations – if Obama gives Republicans Social Security cuts, Medicare cuts, and more pollution. And possibly a pony. In exchange, Democrats would get nothing.

McConnell could try to pass legislation through Congress achieving his goals – you know, the way the legislative process is supposed to work in the United States – but he doesn’t want to. The Republican leader thinks it would be easier to circumvent the process, come up with a ridiculous ransom list, and threaten to crash the economy unless the GOP’s demands are met.

And who knows, maybe McConnell will keep up this posture for a while as the deadline approaches. But those of us with decent memories and/or access to Google know he’s bluffing.

We can say this with some confidence because McConnell has already admitted it. As recently as March, the Republican Senate leader told a national television audience, “[W]e’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt.” A few months before that, McConnell said on the record, “There will be no government shutdown or default on the national debt.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has also publicly conceded, “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.”

What we have, in other words, is a situation in which a GOP leader is threatening to take a hostage – which in this case is our economic health – after already telling everyone he has no intention of harming the hostage.

Why would Obama even consider paying a ransom under such circumstances? The answer, obviously, is he wouldn’t.

Nor should he. The moment the president starts rewarding politicians who threaten to hurt Americans on purpose, he creates an incentive for radicalized lawmakers to keep deliberately putting us in harm’s way whenever congressional Republicans decide they want something that can’t otherwise become law.

kabukiIt’s entirely possible, if not likely, that McConnell knows all of this and he’s going through the motions for the sake of partisan theatrics. The Senate Majority Leader wants to be able to tell his GOP members and his party’s base that he came up with the ransom note, but that rascally president refused to reward Republicans for doing what they have to do anyway.

But the game of brinkmanship is nevertheless absurd. We’d all benefit if McConnell just skipped the ransom note and prepared to pass the bill he already knows he’ll have to pass eventually.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent also asks, “Do we really have to play along with this charade again?” GOP leaders divided over whether to pretend to stage another doomed debt limit hostage crisis:

So it looks like John Boehner may be contemplating a scenario that will get conservatives very, very angry but could spare the rest of us from a whole lot of noisy drama. Politico reports:

House Speaker John Boehner is looking to move a bill to lift the debt ceiling before he leaves Congress, a tactic aimed at helping his successor, according to multiple sources with knowledge of internal party planning.

Timing has not been decided, but the Treasury Department says the nation’s borrowing limit needs to be raised by Nov. 5, and Boehner (R-Ohio) would like to resolve the issue before a new speaker is sworn in. Boehner expects to step down Oct. 30. His office declined to comment for this story.

Boehner is in discussions with Senate leadership and the White House over a budget package that would include raising the debt ceiling, but House GOP aides do not expect the talks to produce an agreement. GOP leadership aides have discussed passing a standalone debt limit bill should the talks break down. Many senior Republican aides and lawmakers see a “clean” debt limit bill as the only real option.

This continues to get lost in discussions of this issue, but GOP leaders actually want to raise the debt limit, and they know beyond any doubt that they will end up doing just that in the end. In previous debt limit standoffs, GOP leaders have agreed that default will hurt the economy. And according to Politico’s reporting, Boehner knows that raising the debt limit this time would spare his successor — and his party — a major headache.

Thus, if and when Republicans do demand later on in this process that Democrats make concessions in exchange for Republican cooperation in raising the debt limit, Republicans will be asking Democrats to give them something in exchange for what they themselves want to happen to prevent massive harm to their own party and the country.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Mitch McConnell is actually gearing up to insist on just this sort of concession:

Mitch McConnell privately wants the White House to pay this price to enact a major budget deal: Significant changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and funding the government.

Several people familiar with the high-stakes fiscal negotiations said the Senate majority leader’s staff is trying to drive a hard bargain in the private talks with the White House and Democratic leaders.

Now, maybe McConnell knows he’s not going to get unilateral concessions in exchange for refraining from hurting the country, and is just leaking this so conservatives think he’s “fighting.” But whatever the motive for this leak, it’s just a bunch of baloney. As Steve Benen notes, “these dangerous schemes only work if your rival believes you’re fully prepared to kill the hostage – and in this case, McConnell lacks all credibility.” This is especially true, now that we know Boehner is looking to raise it, very likely cleanly, to save his party from a huge political mess.

Conservatives will of course scream betrayal if Republican leaders do move to raise the debt limit with a minimum of damage to the country, without getting anything in return for it. But as I noted here yesterday, we have come a long way from 2011, when the political incentives were stacked in a way that really did give Republicans leverage to extract concessions in fiscal standoffs. But in repeated confrontations since Obama won reelection in 2012, the President and Democrats have revealed that this leverage is a phantom. The political incentives now all point the other way.

The point is that conservatives pushing for more such standoffs know this. They know the tactic will fail, and are only urging it on for their own cynical reasons. Whether or not Boehner actually ends up sparing us the needless drama of a protracted confrontation, the fact that he’s looking to resolve this without one itself confirms how this will ultimately end, no matter what has to happen along the way. And there’s no need for anyone to pretend otherwise.

And on the world stage, Tea-Publicans are making the U.S. Congress look ridiculous and incapable of governing in a rational and fiscally responsible way like responsible adults.