President Obama reiterated today that he will not negotiate over the debt limit. This has been his stance for the past couple of years after the disaster that was the 2011 negotiations. Using the debt limit as extortion is not acceptable. It’s not how our government works and Obama cannot give in to Republican hostage-taking. The problem is that Obama may not have a choice.
We are currently in day eight of the government shutdown and Treasury will breach the debt ceiling sometime in the next two weeks or so. The only way for Obama to demonstrate that he really means it when he says that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling is by forcing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Republicans to raise the debt limit with zero concessions. And guess what? Boehner would reluctantly bring such a bill to the floor at the last minute, because he understands how catastrophic a default would be. Obama knows Boehner understands this and will wait him out if necessary.
The problem comes with the government shutdown. If the two parties come to an agreement before the debt ceiling deadline, that agreement would very likely include a debt ceiling increase. Boehner knows that even if tosses it in there without receiving any concessions, he can still turn around and tell his members that he broke Obama’s pledge not to negotiate. At the same time, Obama can’t reject that.
If the two parties don’t come to an agreement over the government shutdown by the deadline, it will force Boehner to surrender and raise the debt limit without concessions. This would be embarrassing for the speaker and would infuriate his conservative members. He would also lose significant leverage in the government shutdown negotiations. From his comments today, the speaker understands all of this as well.
That’s why I’m confident that a deal will be reached by October 17, the approximate date that the government won’t be able to pay all of its bills. It will take until the 11th hour so that Boehner can return to his conservative members and say he got everything he could out of the president. Both sides will also ramp up the rhetoric and partisan attacks as the time goes by in order to gain leverage in the standoff. Boehner is still hoping that Obama is bluffing, although he knows that is highly unlikely. Obama is still hoping that Boehner will cave and raise the debt ceiling with a clean CR, also highly unlikely to happen. Yet, neither side is going to let go of those hopes and that will force these fights to continue until the last minute.
But they will come to an agreement. It will include a new CR with a debt limit increase and some minor concessions (a new non-binding supercommittee, repeal of the medical device tax, etc.) to placate the Tea Party. Unfortunately, that means Boehner can return to his members and tell them that Obama negotiated over the debt limit. When we hit the debt ceiling in the future, we’re going to go through this entire process again and conservatives will claim that Obama negotiated in 2011 and in 2013. It won’t be true, but it won’t matter. Hopefully then there won’t be a government shutdown fight to muddy the waters. Unfortunately, right now there is.