On February 7, 2014, or thereabouts, the debt ceiling needs to be raised. And if you thought that Washington had learned its lesson from October and wouldn't put the government or economy at risk over it, you must be in the 12 percent of Americans that still think Congress is doing a good job.
Over the weekend, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan admitted to Fox News what everyone feared: the Republicans are preparing to demand concessions in the upcoming debt ceiling fight. "We as a caucus, along with our Senate counterparts, are going to meet and discuss what it is we want to get out of the debt limit," he said, as transcribed by New York. "We don't want nothing out of this debt limit." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that sentiment in comments on Tuesday. "I doubt if the House, or for that matter the Senate, is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase," he said, according to USA Today, adding, "Every time the president asks us to raise the debt ceiling is a good time to try to achieve something important for the country."
Robert Costa, whose reporting on the shutdown revealed a remarkable ability to read the Republican Congress' mind, explained McConnell's likely thinking in a series of tweets last night. McConnell wanted a bigger deal than the one Ryan reached with Senate Democrats, Costa explained, one that tackled Social Security and Medicare reform for sequestration reduction. Now that the budget is settled, McConnell will actively push for concessions. And some Senate Republicans think that the problems with Obamacare may make Obama "more than willing to deal on energy, spending." Ryan confirmed that sentiment in comments reported by the Wall Street Journal: maybe the debt ceiling increase should be predicated on approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The debt ceiling will be reached on or around February 7, according to the Treasury Department's October estimates. That date is flexible and dependent on a number of things, as we've noted, but it suggests that the need to resolve the dispute is only months away. Or, to be specific: 51 days.
As students of extremely recent history will remember, it was the threat of default on the debt — and only that — that brought the October shutdown to an end. The GOP was taking a beating in the polls and the looming need to raise the debt ceiling forced the party to capitulate on the shutdown.
Democrats do not yet seem to be intimidated. During his daily press briefing on Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney repeated that "the president’s position hasn’t changed" on the threat: no deals, no how. California Sen. Barbara Boxer addressed McConnell directly, according to Politico.
“Well, he’s in for a big shock,” Boxer said on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” on Tuesday night. “Because the fact is, you don’t get paid a ransom for doing your job, Ed. And our job is to pay the bills.”
After the shutdown was resolved in October, even McConnell pledged that the party was done holding the government hostage. But that was before McConnell was slipping in polls against both his primary competition and, if he makes it to the general, the Democratic candidate. It was before the Senate's conservative faction (with which McConnell and other Republicans facing primary challenges are trying to align themselves) flirted with vetoing Ryan's budget deal.
Now Republicans are lining up, once again, to talk about what they need in order to raise the debt ceiling. BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera tracked the wish lists: Sen. Jerry Moran wants a change in "how we do business." Sen. Jeff Flake wants spending cuts. Sen. Ted Cruz, who led the line of senators to the cliff's edge in October (only to be pushed over by House Speaker John Boehner) wants items-to-be-named-later. The whole thing is really a triumph for the Jim DeMint-founded Senate Conservatives Fund, which has launched various primary threats.
New York's Jonathan Chait (who probably understands the Republican psyche less well than Costa) is baffled.
Clearly, [Republicans are] not going to win. The question is why they’re making a threat when Obama knows they can’t carry it out. Why wind up conservative activists for a new fight that’s doomed to failure? Nothing about this threat makes any sense.
Chait is not running for reelection. Nebulous threats about things that are two months away are good campaign fodder. If on February 6 this is still a heated issue, then such bafflement should be universal. And Congress' lousy poll numbers should dip into the negatives.