On debt ceiling, Obama forces Republicans to blink

Opinion

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

President Obama has forced congressional Republicans to abandon long-held positions and accept Obama’s in a major fiscal debate for the second time in less a month, showing a president who is emboldened and empowered after his reelection victory and an opposition struggling to find its political footing.

In a dramatic reversal from their defiant stance of only a few weeks ago, House Republicans Wednesday are expected to approve a provision that effectively suspends the enforcement of the federal debt limit for three months, averting what was expected to be a repeat of the 2011 battle between the White House and congressional Republicans over the debt limit. In passing this bill, which includes no spending cuts, Republicans are abruptly abandoning what had been one of their core strategies of the last two years: opposing increases to the debt limit and potentially forcing the U.S. government into default unless each dollar increase in the debt limit was matched by the same amount in spending cuts.

The idea is so popular among Republicans it has been dubbed the “Boehner Rule.”

The GOP concession is an unmistakable victory for the president. Since November’s election, Obama had emphatically insisted he would not agree to any compromise that tied increasing the debt limit to spending cuts. He had used a recent press conference to promise that Republicans “will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.”

Top Republicans, after concluding they would not win a public relations battle with Obama over the debt limit, say they will instead try to force additional spending cuts by invoking two other deadlines: March 1, when a series of automatic cuts originally passed in 2011 are due to go in effect, and March 27, when current funding for the federal government runs out.

And this is not a complete capitulation to Obama, who had said, ““I am not going to have a monthly or every-three-months conversation about whether or not we pay our bills.” This agreement sets up another debt ceiling fight this summer and a battle around government funding even before that.

But Obama has now broken what had an operating principle of the House Republicans under Boehner, using the debt ceiling to extract spending cuts. And the debt ceiling was the most powerful negotiating tool the Republicans held, as the damage to the economy from a default is much more severe than would result from a brief government shutdown or the automatic cuts going into effect.

And the GOP’s decision validates how Obama handled the “fiscal cliff” negotiations earlier this month. At the time, many liberals had bemoaned the agreement, even though Obama had forced Republicans to accept major tax hikes for the first time in decades, because they worried the deal did not address the debt ceiling and Obama was just delaying spending cuts the GOP would inevitably extract from him in exchange for raising the debt limit.

“Obama claims, and seems to genuinely believe, that he won’t let Republicans jack him up over the debt ceiling again. But if Republicans could hold the middle class tax cuts hostage, they’ll try to hold the debt ceiling hostage. Indeed, they will probably discover other areas of traditionally routine policy agreement that can be turned into extortion opportunities,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote in criticizing Obama’s strategy on the fiscal cliff negotiations. “Obama may think his conciliatory approach has helped avoid economic chaos. Instead, he is courting it.”

Instead, Obama now has achieved two major victories in a month. The “fiscal cliff” deal resulted in billions in spending on unemployment benefits and other provisions for low and middle-income families that Obama supported and included almost no spending cuts. This debt ceiling increase accomplishes Obama’s chief aim: decoupling the debt limit from broader discussions of spending cuts.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.