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Boehner doubles down on looming debt-ceiling crisis

Associated Press

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made some strikingly reckless comments this week on his appetite for yet another debt-ceiling crisis, telling donors at an Idaho fundraiser that his position "may be unfair," but he's going to put Americans through this anyway.

Any chance the Speaker's office might walk this back a bit, turning down the temperature and reassuring the world that Republicans will not deliberately trash the full faith and credit of the United States? Apparently not.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said the speaker had long espoused a policy of spending cuts tied to an increase in the debt ceiling. "The speaker's comments are consistent," he said. "Any increase in the debt limit must be accompanied by cuts and reforms greater than the increase."

Great. The White House will negotiate over the budget, but it will not negotiate with those who threaten to hurt Americans on purpose by holding the debt ceiling hostage. The Speaker of the House, meanwhile, knows the debt limit has to be raised, but says unspecified conservative goodies "must" accompany the increase.

The last time Republicans pulled this incredibly irresponsible stunt, it did real, lasting harm to the nation, our economy, our job market, our credit rating, and our global credibility. Boehner and other GOP leaders know this, but they say they're prepared to do it, regardless of the consequences.

Why this isn't considered a major scandal is something I'll never fully understand.

Nevertheless, when Boehner's spokesperson says the Speaker's comments "are consistent," it's an interesting defense, largely because it's ridiculous. Igor Volsky put together a great item yesterday noting the many instances in which Boehner said he wouldn't use the debt ceiling for political leverage, which is precisely what the Speaker is doing now. Perhaps it's best if his office doesn't casually throw around references to "consistency" -- Boehner has said repeatedly that failing to raise the debt ceiling would produce catastrophic consequences, and has said it's a gambit he opposes, and yet here we are.

All of this, incidentally, leads to a related question that's become the subject of spirited debate: is Boehner bluffing?

Plenty of credible observers -- Beutler, Khimm, Barro, and Beutler again -- all believe Boehner's chest thumping is little more than bluster, and there's really nothing to be alarmed about. I sincerely hope they're correct.

But I'm not convinced the Speaker is bluffing, and like Ezra Klein, I believe Americans should be concerned.

The central fact of the next debt-ceiling fight is that the two parties' positions are mutually exclusive. Republicans say they will raise the debt ceiling only in return for significant budget concessions. The Obama administration says it won't offer anything in return for raising the debt ceiling.

There's only one possible outcome given those two positions: The debt ceiling won't be raised.

Eventually, one or both of those positions will change. No one -- including me -- believes that the debt ceiling will remain right where it is, forever and ever, amen. That would mean a financial crisis of epic proportions.

But here's what scares me: No one can tell me how one or both of those positions will change before we breach the ceiling in mid-October.

I'd add just one more thing: Boehner should, in theory, be sending subtle signals about giving in, getting his members and his party prepared for the inevitable fact that the debt ceiling has to be raised and they're not going to get what they want. But with just eight weeks remaining, the Speaker is doing the opposite -- boasting that his demands are "unfair" while promising to once again hold the nation hostage until the non-negotiable demands on his ransom note are met.

If he were bluffing, Boehner could use very different rhetoric -- "We'll do our best, but..." or "Maybe after the 2014 midterms, if Republicans control the Senate..."

The Speaker knows time is running out, he knows the risks, and he knows the consequences, but he won't lower the gun from the hostage's head.

Ezra added:

The Democrats' quiet hope is that House Republicans will overplay their hand and, as terror mounts over the debt ceiling, Senate Republicans will cut a meaningful deal with Obama and the House will let the package pass by waiving the Hastert rule. That's possible, of course, but hardly likely. House Republicans don't like getting jammed by the Senate, and powerful conservative groups have been policing Hastert rule violations much more aggressively of late.

And then there's the possibility of simple miscalculation. Remember when Boehner's "Plan B" failed on the floor of the House? When the farm bill failed on the floor of the House? When the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill failed on the floor of the House? The odds of Boehner and Cantor thinking they can pass something and simply being wrong about that are not zero.

And that's the problem. None of the safe outcomes are likely. None of them even look particularly plausible, at least right now. And that's scary. If you're not at least a bit worried about the debt ceiling, you're not paying close enough attention.

Those insisting Boehner is bluffing no doubt think Ezra and I are overreacting. Some probably said the same thing in early 2011, arguing, "Republicans are nuts, but they're not so insane as to actually harm the country with a real crisis."

How'd that work out?