For months, there's been a general understanding about the fiscal fight between Democrats and Republicans -- the parties could reach a compromise if Dems accepted concessions on social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security, and the GOP accepted concessions on tax revenue. The former has been willing to compromise, the latter hasn't, so nothing has happened.
But this general framework has always suffered from a minor flaw. Republicans have been told, repeatedly, that if they expect to get entitlement "reforms," they're going to have to give a little and reach an agreement with Democrats. But GOP officials have consistently rejected the premise, not because they consider entitlement cuts impossible, but because they had a Plan B.
The back-up option, of course, is the debt ceiling. In effect, the Republican strategy, though unstated, has been made quite clear: "To get entitlement cuts, we don't need to accept new revenue, we simply need to hold the country hostage again and threaten to hurt Americans on purpose. Democrats will have no choice but to give us what we want, and we won't have to accept any concessions at all."
Over the last week or so, this strategy has begun to take shape in earnest. It's not yet clear exactly when the debt ceiling will need to be raised -- estimates vary from May to July -- but Republicans are becoming increasingly explicit in their threats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued on Fox Business last night that he expects a debt-ceiling increase to be tied to entitlement cuts, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the same thing to reporters yesterday.
"Dollar for dollar is the plan," Boehner said, suggesting for every dollar the debt limit is raised, he expects a comparable amount of cuts to social-insurance programs. How'd he come up with this standard? Arbitrarily and for no particular reason.
But if you watch the above clip, pay particular attention to the last few seconds. Boehner demands that we need to eliminate the deficit within 10 years -- why he thinks this is still a mystery -- and insists that he will not accept so much as a penny in new tax revenue.
And then he says something else: "I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government."
Those are the 14 most important words Boehner has said in a long while.
Look, it's clear congressional Republicans are eager to launch another crisis. The government shutdown option was taken off the table early on, but a debt-ceiling hostage strategy is a crisis GOP members find frighteningly appealing. They know how damaging the debate is, they know even having the conversation does real harm to the economy, and they see all of this as a plus -- if you rough up the hostages before threatening to pull the trigger, your threats are more likely to be taken seriously.
Those just outside the caucus are offering words of caution -- John Feehery told Greg Sargent yesterday his party "could squander a lot of their good PR if they create a crisis" -- but by all accounts, rank-and-file Republican lawmakers just don't care. They want their entitlement cuts, and if threatening to do deliberate harm to the country is what it takes, that's what they'll do.
But that's why it matters that Boehner has already given the game away: "I'm not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government."
Unless the Speaker changes his mind, that's pretty much the game-over moment.
In order for Republican threats to work, everyone, including the White House, has to seriously believe that GOP lawmakers are not bluffing. When it comes time to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans need everyone to be terrified -- maybe, the argument goes, they'll default on American debts, they'll refuse to pay for the things they've already bought, and they'll ignore their constitutional obligations and trash the full faith and credit of the United States.
Except John Boehner, ostensibly the most powerful Republican official in the country, just said on camera that he's not going to do this, which necessarily means he can't shoot the hostage.
When the debt-ceiling issue came up in January, Republicans all but admitted they were bluffing and weren't actually going to allow the nation to default. As of yesterday, Boehner largely admitted it again.
Let's make this plain: if the House Speaker isn't going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government, then Democrats have no incentive to pay his ridiculous ransom. It's as simple as that.