Did the Government Shutdown Stop Us From Defaulting?

Ezra Klein thinks so:

But whatever the endgame, the fight now is over a government shutdown. That’s bad. But it’s not nearly as bad as a fight over the debt ceiling. It’s evidence of how far into dysfunction American politics has fallen that this can or should be said, but thank God for the government shutdown. It might just have saved the country.

Hmm I’m not so convinced.

Here’s what the odds of a default would’ve been without a government shutdown: 0%.
And here’s what they are with a government shutdown: 0%.

I’ve held this view for a while. Under no circumstance would Boehner allow us to breach the debt ceiling. It helps his negotiating position to try to convince journalists that he is crazy enough to breach it, but when push comes to shove, Boehner understands the catastrophic consequences of a default. He also understands that he single-handedly has the power to stop us from defaulting. History would not look on him kindly if he had that power and chose not to exercise it.

That doesn’t mean the government shutdown didn’t help him out. On the contrary, Klein is exactly right that it gave the Tea Party a chance to vent their anger. Thus, it gave Boehner political cover. He can choose to fight on the government shutdown instead of the debt ceiling. But don’t think that means that the government shutdown actually helped prevent a default. Boehner was always going to raise the debt ceiling.

Path Set for Ultimate Battle Between Boehner and the Tea Party

There’s an interesting dynamic developing in the Republican party over John Boehner’s proposal for a six-week debt ceiling increase. The Tea Party has hesitantly accepted the idea, arguing that it would separate out the debt ceiling and government shutdown fights. They want to use the government shutdown to stop Obamacare and the debt ceiling to enact entitlement reform. For them, keeping the two crises separate is vital and the short-term deal accomplishes that. Here’s how Sen. Ted Cruz described it on KYFO radio:

My understanding is that this is being driven by House conservatives who are quite reasonably saying listen, let’s focus on Obamacare, on winning the fight on Obamacare, on helping remedy the enormous harms Obamacare is inflicting on millions of Americans, and let’s push the debt ceiling a little further down the road so that it doesn’t distract us from the fight we’re right in the middle of now.

What’s amazing is that Boehner and Republican leadership want the short-term extension for precisely the opposite reason that Cruz and Co. want it. Boehner wants to make a larger deal that includes a continuing resolution and longer debt ceiling increase in return for concessions from the president. President Obama says he won’t negotiate until Republicans reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, but if Boehner offers a deal with few concessions (repealing the medical device tax or a promise to focus on tax reform, for instance), the president will likely accept it. Boehner, thus, needs time to craft an agreement and rally support for such a deal. That’s why he’s proposed this short-term extension. From Robert Costa yesterday:

But the quiet acceptance of a short-term extension among rank-and-file Republicans gives Speaker John Boehner, who heads to the White House later today, a chance to avert default and eventually craft a larger fiscal bargain. “We’re telling folks, help us here, and we’ll work together moving forward,” says a veteran House Republican. “We know this isn’t perfect, but we’re not living in fantasyland, thinking we can get everything we want before the deadline.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, #4 in the House Republican leadership, further emphasized that the six-week deal would give Republican leaders time to “continue this conversation.

This is going to set up a major battle between Boehner and the Tea Party in the next couple of weeks. I argued yesterday that Boehner’s pivot from demanding a stop to Obamacare to demanding a fiscal concession was a major victory for the speaker. I seem to have spoken to early. This short-term deal gives Boehner much-needed time, but when the Tea Party realizes that he’s using it to craft a larger deal on both the budget and debt ceiling, they are going to be livid. How Boehner then attempts to calm them and pass whatever deal he comes to is his next challenge.

We’re Not Going to Breach the Debt Ceiling

Here’s all you need to know about the debt ceiling:

  1. John Boehner knows how horrible it would be to breach the debt limit.
  2. John Boehner has the power to stop us from breaching it.
  3. John Boehner will not allow us to breach the debt ceiling.

It really is that simple, All of the talk around the debt limit is about how Boehner can sell a debt limit raise to his members in the best possible way. It has nothing to do whether he will actually raise it. This is even clearer today as Boehner and House Republican leaders have unveiled a new plan to increase the debt ceiling for a short period. There seem to be a couple of conditions on it – there’s no language yet so it’s unclear what exactly those will be. The White House reiterated as well today that it will only accept a clean debt ceiling increase, no conditions attached. Obama has correctly refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling and I’m confident that he will stick to his position.

As I’ve written before, Boehner could likely come to an agreement with Obama and Senate Democrats that raises the debt ceiling and passes a continuing resolution for a very minor concession (an agreement to negotiate on tax reform possibly). Obama will still stand firm in not negotiating over the debt limit, but a deal like that would be too good to pass up. He would basically receive a clean CR and clean debt ceiling raise for no substantial concessions. The problem for Boehner is not convincing Obama to accept such a deal. It’s convincing his caucus. That’s why he has spent the past ten days demanding that the White House negotiate while slowly ramping down his demands. It’s politicking.

The same thing is happening with this six-week debt ceiling increase. If we hit the debt ceiling deadline without an agreement over the government shutdown, Boehner will be forced to raise it without any concessions. That would be an embarrassing defeat and would infuriate the Tea Party. This short-term debt ceiling hike will give him another month and a half to prove to his conservative members that he’s doing everything in his power to fight the president. He has to come to an agreement over the budget while also raising the debt ceiling. This gives him more time to accomplish that.

Of course, he has to sell this six-week increase to his members as well. That’s why he’s including conditions on it. Without those, the Tea Party would be furious as well. But, as Greg Sargent reports, the White House isn’t going to agree to a short-term debt ceiling increase that’s tied to negotiations over the budget. That won’t happen. So, Boehner now has to rally support for a clean six-week raise that gives him more time to make a deal with the White House where he and Republicans get basically nothing. It’s a terrible position for the speaker to be in, but he doesn’t have a choice since he will not allow us to breach the debt ceiling. Boehner’s new plan just reinforces that message.