Williamsburg, Va. – House Republicans came to this historic town on Wednesday facing one sticky wicket: how do they force President Obama and congressional Democrats to negotiate spending cuts without looking like insane ideologues willing to risk economic calamity in the process?
By the time they leave Friday afternoon, they will have the makings of the answer. And it’s a pretty beautiful piece of political strategy that does almost nothing to solve the underlying policy puzzles that threaten to throw the country back into recession and forever damage America’s reputation as a global economic stalwart.
Sometime between mid-February and early March, the federal government is going to run out of money to pay the bills it has already racked up. Before increasing the government’s spending limit, Republicans want a commensurate cut in spending.
President Obama, trying to avoid a repeat of the 2011 debt limit showdown that resulted in a credit rating downgrade, has refused to negotiate, arguing that the government should pay its bills. And Democrats on Capitol Hill have tried to paint Republicans as madmen willing to shoot the hostage, in this case the American economy, in the face in order to collect their ransom.
And on the right, Republicans have business leaders, nervous that a protracted battle will tank markets, urging them to quickly increase the nation’s debt ceiling.
It is a weak political position to be in. So on Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said his party is considering a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. That would buy Republicans some time to fight two more looming battles in March, delaying across-the-board spending cuts and extending a resolution to fund the government.
Much like automatic across-the-board tax hikes gave Obama leverage to raise taxes in last month’s fiscal cliff battle, Republicans believe automatic spending cuts give them similar negotiating strength this time around.
“We have no interest in shutting down government. We don’t have to,” said Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming. “The sequestration goes into effect by law and I don’t think the president is going to want the kind of cuts … any more than we do. So we’re on equal footing now.”
And perhaps most importantly, ceding the debt limit issue for a few months helps Republicans look “reasonable” while forcing Democrats to either come to the negotiating table or be left holding the bag on a government shutdown or debt-limit debacle, a Republican lawmaker told National Journal.
Republicans would still demand the increased amount of borrowing be followed by a commensurate cut in spending and require the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass a budget and show Americans their spending plan going forward, the lawmaker said.
The tactic gives Republicans the rhetorical high ground by flipping the script on the president, depicting Obama as the obstructionist unwilling to negotiate a solution.
And while Republicans insist they aren’t using the debt limit as leverage, they are. But instead of trying to shoot the hostage, they have set up a Sword of Damocles that will hang over Obama’s second-term, crowding out other legacy-building issues, until Republicans and Democrats can cut a deal on spending.
Republicans have figured out a way to play a tough hand in a city still mostly controlled by Democrats. As Ryan said Thursday, “We also have to recognize the realities of the divided government we have.”
And that includes ensuring that Democrats share in the blame if everything goes to hell.