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The hostage McConnell sees as 'worth ransoming'

A year ago, immediately after the debt-ceiling fiasco was resolved, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered a chilling assessment of the crisis he helped create. "What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming," he said.

It's one of the more important comments McConnell has ever made. He and his allies had just threatened to crash the economy on purpose, which led to severe consequences, including our first modern downgrade. But the lesson the Republicans' Senate leader learned from the debacle is that he should do all of this all over again.

And with this in mind, this week's comments are not surprising. McConnell realizes he can't win the fight over taxes, so he'll simply hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage again until President Obama pays a ransom Republicans find satisfactory.

The top Republican in the Senate acknowledged Tuesday that President Obama has the upper hand in the debate about income tax rates on high income Americans. And he became the highest ranking GOP official to assert that Republicans will have to wait until next year, when the debt limit needs to be raised, to effectively push for cuts to social programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

McConnell specifically said he sees an "opportunity ... when the debt ceiling issue arrives." He added, "We are going to insist that we have another discussion about the future of our country in connection with the request of us to raise the debt ceiling."

The Senate Republican leader is, to be sure, using the most diplomatic language possible, but there can be no doubt as to his underlying message: McConnell is threatening to hurt Americans on purpose.

If the political world treats this as somehow routine, we're making an important mistake.

Remember, Mitch McConnell has been in Congress for a quarter century and never "insisted that we have another discussion about the future of our country in connection with the request of us to raise the debt ceiling." He always treated these debt-limit increases as routine, procedural paperwork, which they were.

Indeed, even calling the debt ceiling a presidential "request" is absurd. As McConnell surely knows, the United States has obligations, one of which is to pay our bills. When the White House tells Congress it's not a "request," it's a reminder. Obama isn't saying, "Would you guys mind raising the debt ceiling for me?" He's saying, "The bill for the money we already spent is here and it's time to pay it."

But my fear is that McConnell will once again demand a ransom and the coverage will pretend that it's just another political squabble in Washington. As Greg Sargent explained:

McConnell and Boehner believe the threat of damage to the economy is a perfectly legitimate lever to use to get what the GOP wants.... This is not business as usual, in which each side is demanding concessions from the other. In this case, one side is asking for concessions in exchange for not hurting the whole country, and spinning any eventual agreement not to do that as a concession on their part. It's a remarkable maneuver, when you think about it.

Quite right. It's time to start thinking about the debt-ceiling fight less as a political fight and more as a national scandal. Between 1939 and 2010, Congress raised the debt limit 89 times, and in 89 instances, lawmakers resisted the urge to threaten the nation unless non-negotiable demands were met. No party, in other words, ever held the nation hostage until 2011.

McConnell and his party -- who were responsible for adding trillions of dollars to the debt they now pretend to find outrageous -- have created this nightmare scenario, on purpose. They've changed the rules of the game, on purpose. They're threatening to undermine the global economy, on purpose.

And if they keep getting rewarded for taking the nation hostage, we'll simply see a never-ending series of crisis indefinitely into the future. After all, as McConnell put it, Republicans see the health and stability of our economy as "a hostage that's worth ransoming."