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January 02, 2013 10:04 AM Fire Next Time

By Ed Kilgore

As noted often here and among the more discerning observers for a good while, the “fiscal cliff” brouhaha was in part originally, and is far more now, a preliminary event leading up to the Big Apocalyptic Fight on store in late February or March (or who knows? perhaps a somewhat later date thanks to temporary “fixes” and extensions) when the Treasury runs out of ways to avoid the debt limit and both the temporary FY 2013 appropriations and the delay in “sequestrations” provided for in 2011 expire. Failure to get all those items wrapped up in a “fiscal cliff” deal is what (more than its “deficit impact” number or the failure to make spending cuts) transformed it from a “grand bargain” to simply a tax bill with some riders. And it’s the failure to use “fiscal cliff” pressure as leverage on the debt limit that has a lot of progressives angry at Obama and/or Senate Democrats for the deal they did cut, just as a lot of conservatives are furious at congressional Republicans for not finding a way to use debt limit obstruction threats to secure a better resolution of the tax fight.

So the supposed moment of bipartisan satori that supposedly culminated with the House’s action last night has increased the already formidable sentiment within both parties to make the upcoming confrontation One for the Ages. I would guess that by sundown today about 95% of the Republicans in both Houses who voted for the “cliff” bill will have made public statements swearing bloody vengeance on the Welfare State in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. And even before the deal was sealed in the Senate, the president was already vowing not to make the concessions Republicans will demand. The rhetoric will only escalate from there.

TNR’s Noam Scheiber probably reflects the current views of a majority of progressives in expressing less than total confidence in the president in this next war of nerves and threats and hostage-taking:

[I]f there’s one thing we learned in 2011, it’s that Obama fears the consequences of not raising the debt limit more than the GOP leadership, to say nothing of the GOP rank and file. McConnell will assume that if Obama coughed up concessions to cut a deal even when he wasn’t especially anxious about not getting one, he will cough up much bigger concessions when he’s panicked….
Now it’s true that the president forcefully reiterated his refusal to negotiate over the debt limit in his statement after the House vote last night. And if raising the debt limit were the only deadline looming in March, that might count for something, since it’s harder to squeeze a guy for concessions if he won’t even take your calls. But, as a practical matter, this is just a semantic game. The White House will be negotiating hard over the next two months even if it says it’s not negotiating over the debt limit, since the bill that funds the government for this year expires in March, as does the two-month delay in the automatic spending cuts that Congress just approved. What difference does it make why you say you’re negotiating if in the end you’re still negotiating?
Put all that together and here’s what the fiscal cliff accomplished then: It affirmed to Republicans that Obama will do pretty much anything he can to avoid a debt default, regardless of what he says. It affirmed the White House anxiety that the GOP might not blink before we default. To put it mildly, that’s quite an asymmetry. I want to believe the president can get through the next stage in this endless budget stalemate without accepting some of the more dangerous spending cuts conservatives are demanding. But at this point I’m having a hard time seeing it.

Scheiber also asserts that Republicans care more about inflicting pain on domestic spending than on protecting the Pentagon, which is why he adjudges the sequestration delay as a Republican asset in the debt limit talks. That may be true of Rand Paul, but it’s not so clear when it comes to your average Republican Member of Congress who is on record predicting the impending defeat of the United States in a future war with Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, and who is feeling heat from defense contractors back home and in DC. And let’s also remember GOPers are going to begin thinking ahead to 2014, when a more suitably old and white electorate will re-emerge, giving them, in theory at least, another chance to replay 2011. On the other hand, conservative shrieking over the “betrayal” of congressional Republicans in accepting the fiscal deal is already reaching a high-pitched whine, along with entirely understandable concerns about the stability of GOP leadership.

So it will continue to be difficult to determine who has the upper hand in the weeks just ahead, particularly as new “lines in the sand” are drawn and re-drawn and jittery markets exert their own pressure on all the actors.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Josef K on January 02, 2013 10:23 AM:

    TNRís Noam Scheiber probably reflects the current views of a majority of progressives in expressing less than total confidence in the president in this next war of nerves and threats and hostage-taking

    This is one of the problems with taking your own job seriously, possibly even recognizing that there are real-world consequences to inaction and a national 'default'...and not caring about any of that.

    Oh, I don't argue with Scheiber's overall point; I just don't know if he's taken into account that none of this is actually a game without real consequences in all outcomes. I do think he's completely correct and the President does fear a national default more than the GOP does. I'm not sure it can be avoided however, especially if a sizable enough portion of the GOP conference have worked themselves into a blood-frenzy here and are ready and willing to crash the economy.

    Then again, perhaps the President (now technically a lame duck) will feel emboldened enough to hold his line here. I'd count this as more likely if Boehner looses his Speaker's gavel to someone else; a remote possibility, but then so too was W's 'winning' in 2000 and 2004.

  • Dredd on January 02, 2013 10:28 AM:

    I hope he does better on the climate change deliberations, because, while these GOP doods seem to believe in some form of money, they do not believe in climate change (other than it is a big liberal hoax).

  • Dredd on January 02, 2013 10:29 AM:

    I hope he does better on the climate change deliberations, because, while these GOP doods seem to believe in some form of money, they do not believe in climate change (other than it is a big liberal hoax).

  • SteveT on January 02, 2013 10:29 AM:

    Can someone please tell me why Obama continues to give political cover to the Republicans?

    After the 2008 elections the Republicans were completely discredited in the eyes of American voters. But Obama's first action after he was sworn in was to reach out his hand to help Republicans get back on their feet and to help Republicans regain their credibility by saying that they have "good ideas, too."

    All Obama has to do is to repeat the more outrageous and ignorant statements from what are considered mainstream Republicans and ask rhetorically how he can be expected to negotiate with such crazy people.

    Peel away the Republicans' thin veneer of respectability and a vast majority of Americans would recoil in horror from Republicans the way they did from Todd Akins and his "legitimate rape" comments.

  • Peter C on January 02, 2013 10:30 AM:

    If our biggest problem now is the debt ceiling (which we all agree is an absurd concept since the expenditure has already been mandated by Congress), we should quickly implement the treasury solution of issuing a giant expensive titanium coin. Yes, the idea is absurd and a fairly blatant ruse, but less so than this absurd and horribly destructive hostage-taking by the GOP House. We'd be setting a precedent, perhaps, but does anyone actually harbor the delusion that the Republicans wouldn't employ this sort of solution if they were in our place????

    We must end the asymmetry whereby we act rationally, but are continually hampered by childish Republicans. They appropriate power that they do not deserve by fingering the doomsday button, but it is a button we don't need. If we disconnect the button (even through suspect means) we take back the power which they've illegitimately appropriated.

    It is time for us to alter the paradigm for a change...

  • c u n d gulag on January 02, 2013 10:42 AM:

    Republicans, having failed to get their pound of "Earned Benefits" flesh in this "Fiscal Cliff" battle, will now demand, that in the coming "Debt Ceiling" all-out war, the Democrats give them all of that flesh, and leave those who are needy, the bones to gnaw on - until they're too weak and weary from hunger to do even that.

    I don't think they'll win as much as they hope. At least I hope not.

    But imagine the surprise, if they do succeed in getting some substantial pounds of flesh, of the foolish Constituents who enable these sociopathic Republican morons, when they wake up a few days or weeks later, with substantially less in their long-term SS and SS Disability payments, worse Medicare coverage, and discover that they have to take Grandmama and Paw-paw out of their Senior Citizens Home, and bring them under their roof, because Medicaid won't pay for their continued stay there?

    So, Bubba's and Bubbette's, and all of your kin, no matter where you live, before you call for more sacrifice, understand that in the upcoming potential environment of "Shared Sacrifices," most of y'all, will have the most to sacrifice.

    Note: It might be helpful if our MSM focused more on the consequences of the Republican's Dystopian dreams, than on the feckin' horse race and the jockey's.

  • T2 on January 02, 2013 10:43 AM:

    there is something clear in all this: a group of about 40-60 House Republicans, representing a small, easily defined group of citizens in districts gerrymandered to make them safe from being voted out, are in positions to really mess the country up.
    So far, the mainstream Media has let them get away with it. Last night, for example, a major Media outlet reporter started to say Tea Party Republicans in the House voted against the bill but caught himself in time to correct to "some congressmen". Obama, to his credit, has called them out as has Harry Reid. As their blind march to destroy government moves forward, It will become increasingly hard for any report to be broadcast or written that ignores the reality. They'll be seen for what they are - obstructionists separated from the national well-being.

  • FlipYrWhig on January 02, 2013 10:54 AM:

    What is this "leverage" theory that keeps coming up? Let's say Obama says there's no deal on any of these spending and revenue issues without also some end to the debt limit nonsense. And let's say that Republicans say, in turn, fat chance. Now what? What does "leverage" do to break the impasse? Make Republicans feel really guilty?

  • Josef K on January 02, 2013 11:11 AM:

    From Peter C at 10:30 AM:

    If our biggest problem now is the debt ceiling (which we all agree is an absurd concept since the expenditure has already been mandated by Congress), we should quickly implement the treasury solution of issuing a giant expensive titanium coin.

    Actually it could be the size of a penny and made of platinum. Also it would be the President directing the US Mint to produce the coinage, not Treasury.

    I do agree that this solution should be readied. If the GOP conference is as bat-shite crazed as its looking, negotiating with them is a waste of oxygen. Besides, its easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

  • James M on January 02, 2013 11:19 AM:

    T2: when are you going to start your own blog! As c u n d gulag or TCinLA might put it, we are essentially fighting the Civil War all over again. If BO wants to have any kind of 2nd term, I think he has got to change his strategy and start attacking the GOP-led House. Climate Change, gun regulations, immigration, unemployment: we have got too much stuff left to do and these yahoos will try to block all of it.

    These nihilistic morons from what I am presuming to be mainly southern safe seats have to be dealt with. As an Okie I don't like to beat up on the South, but there is no question that the representatives visiting the most grievous harm on the nation tend to be from that region.

  • NCSteve on January 02, 2013 11:19 AM:

    A bunch of Republicans in the House just showed that they're willing to vote with Pelosi rather than let the loons in their own party shoot the hostage and Boehner just broke the Hastert Rule. And, oh yeah, Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection and they do.

  • c u n d gulag on January 02, 2013 11:31 AM:

    James M,
    What we have now, is a "Cold Civil War."

  • boatboy_srq on January 02, 2013 11:33 AM:

    Itís not so clear when it comes to your average Republican Member of Congress who is on record predicting the impending defeat of the United States in a future war with Iran or North Korea or China or Russia

    These people would go on record predicting the impending defeat of the US in a future war with Monaco unless we build 1000 new warheads, another 10 CVNs, 20 more SSBNs, 30 more SSNs and 100-200 new F-35s. But improve servicepeople's pay/benefits, or adequately fund the VA (to serve all those brave servicepeople who've fought in their wars)? HA! "We're broke"...

    Rational discourse and the GOTea no longer belong in the same sentence.

  • Shane Taylor on January 02, 2013 11:57 AM:

    "So it will continue to be difficult to determine who has the upper hand in the weeks just ahead, particularly as new 'lines in the sand' are drawn and re-drawn and jittery markets exert their own pressure on all the actors."

    I think Ed is right. The disarray in the House alone should scramble even the best pundit's attempts to say who will have what leverage. Fortune is always capricious, but these negotiations may be more vulnerable than usual to her whims.

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  • zandru on January 02, 2013 1:41 PM:

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  • Hyde on January 02, 2013 2:12 PM:

    I got a lot of heat in here for saying the President caved over Susan Rice, and now here he's gone and given up the clearest winning hand he'll ever have. Those of you who have faith that Obama will ever stand for anything when facing strong GOP opposition are once again played for fools. I do not believe Obama when he says there will be no further negotiating over the debt ceiling, John Boehner doesn't believe him, and none of you should either.

    Why he even negotiated at all, instead of simply letting January 1 come and then submit a plan to restore the "Bush Tex Cuts"--now renamed the Obama Tax Cuts--for 98 percent of taxpayers is a complete mystery.

    Republicans never forget who their base is. Democrats always forget.