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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Boehner's not retreating, he's doubling down

Robert Costa has a funny little narrative today in which John Boehner and Eric Cantor, moderate old hands who know how Washington works, talk the GOP's young Turks off the ledge of a government shutdown when this year's funding runs out at the end of September.  We don't have the votes, we'll be blamed, etc. etc.  But then there's this kicker, which gave me hot flashbacks:
Members were also buzzing about the leadership’s emerging strategy for the autumn talks. Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit. As members huddled and talked through scenarios, leadership aides reminded them that since the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year, the plan has been to end the year with a debt-limit chess game, and not a messy continuing-resolution impasse (my emphasis).
What this flashed me back to was not debt ceiling summer 2011, but early this year, when Boehner made rather a big show of not forcing a debt ceiling showdown, instead suggesting that his caucus would take its stand at the end of March, when the sequester kicked in. Progressive observers reacted with some incredulity that Boehner would let the sequestration cuts, which include massive defense cuts, happen. At the time, McConnell and Boehner's victory at the fiscal cliff  (Obama forced to settle for just half of his reduced December revenue demand, sequester set to spring in two months) was being viewed as a defeat. But it was Obama and the Democrats who folded when it came time to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, quietly acceding to full uncut sequestration.

Now we're seeing the same play in reverse: take a step back, then face the Democrats down. Passing on a government shutdown isn't moderation, it's escalation: a threatened debt default is far more serious than a closing of government offices, which can't last long.  Obama has said that he'll never negotiate again over the debt ceiling, but he validated the unprecedented brinksmanship in 2011, and the GOP hasn't forgotten. A continuing resolution in September that funds the government through November would only raise the stakes.

And past performance indicates that when the stakes are high, Obama folds. Can't harm the economy, can't harm ordinary Americans, etc. But he who won't risk can't win.

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