McManus: The political angle of the debt-ceiling debate

It’s not hard to see what a compromise solution on the debt ceiling would look like. It’s just hard to see how we get there from here before the Treasury begins running out of money Aug. 2.

Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have proposed competing outlines for a deal, and what’s most striking is how similar they are.

Boehner and Reid both proposed cuts they said would eliminate $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending over 10 years, with automatic cuts if Congress doesn’t act. Both propose setting up a bipartisan joint congressional committee to recommend further savings, which means looking for ways to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And both propose doing all this with no tax increases, though they both favor some kind of tax reform.

The differences are significant but not unbridgeable. The main one is that Reid wants to raise the debt ceiling enough to get through the 2012 election without another debate on the issue; Boehner proposes increasing the debt ceiling by a smaller amount to force another vote within a year, partly as a means of enforcing more cuts.


Both plans represent a victory for conservative Republicans. They’ve won the debate over whether we need to focus immediately on reducing the deficit and the debt. They’ve won the debate over whether a deficit fix should include tax increases for high-income earners. (That was one of President Obama’s top demands, and formally still is, though Reid has walked away from it for now.) They are slowly winning the debate over putting cuts in future Medicare and Social Security benefits on the table. (Even Obama agreed to that, infuriating many of his liberal supporters.)

The scale of the Republican success could be measured in the doleful statement that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued Monday. “It is clear we must enter an era of austerity, to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice,” she said.

So it should be easy for Boehner and Reid to quickly resolve the differences between their two plans, right?

If it were only a question of policy, they probably could. But politics gets in the way.


Boehner is clinging tenaciously to holding another vote on the debt ceiling before the 2012 election. Reid, and Obama, are equally adamant in rejecting it.

Republicans clearly think that having the issue front and center in an election year will help them. Most voters don’t like the national debt and don’t want to allow more borrowing. Forcing Obama to come back and ask for a higher debt ceiling is a way of forcing him to spend time in an election year debating the GOP on its own terms.

Probably more important, though, is the challenge Boehner faces in winning support from his own party for a deal, especially from the fiscal hawks allied with the “tea party” movement. Tea party Republicans mistrust bipartisan deals, especially deals that spread budget cuts over a 10-year timetable. Boehner drew stinging criticism from his right for the short-term spending deal he made in April because many of its cuts turned out to be smaller than initially advertised.

All year long, Boehner and his lieutenants have been asking their most conservative members to cut them some slack on individual budget deals. They promised that there would be “more than one bite at the apple,” in the words of House Republican leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and that the debt ceiling would be the most important bite.


By proposing to raise the debt ceiling in two chunks instead of one, Boehner is promising the tea party yet another bite at the apple — another chance to hold up federal spending if their demands for deficit reduction aren’t satisfied.

In the short run, brinkmanship has worked for the House Republicans. Their single-minded stubbornness has forced both the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate to bend in their direction.

But brinkmanship always carries the risk of actually going over the cliff. If the impasse over the debt ceiling causes economic chaos, Boehner and his party will get much of the blame. Already, polls suggest that this debate has been a “negative sum” game for its protagonists: Obama and both parties in Congress have all fallen in public esteem.

The debate has also changed at least one aspect of the way Washington does business. Raising the debt ceiling was once a routine piece of fiscal management, but now, for many in the GOP, it’s become a matter of principle, and an indispensable point of leverage too. No matter what happens between now and Aug. 2, we are likely to find ourselves back at the brink again all too soon.