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September 26, 2013 10:02 AM The Devil’s Christmas Tree

By Ed Kilgore

Expect to hear a great deal of cheerleading for a government shutdown from unusual quarters today. That’s because House Speaker John Boehner is now beginning to implement his earlier and much-puzzling-to-rational-people strategy of shifting Republican hostage-taking from efforts to keep the federal government operating to a debt limit bill due at the very latest by October 17.

Why is he doing this? You have to assume that Boehner is mesmerized by polling showing a debt default is more popular than a government shutdown—polling that is, of course, based on broad public incomprehension of the implications of a debt default.

Because (a) the president’s position after the dispiriting debt limit impasse of 2011 is that he will not negotiate over the debt limit, and because (b) congressional Democrats support that position, often with implicit or explicit “Hell No!” amendment, Boehner needs a debt limit bill that can pass the House with Republican votes only. And so his bill, as it is developing, is a right-wing Devil’s Christmas Tree, or to use a more secular metaphor, an evil child’s wish list for Santa. The generally very calm and very articulate Ezra Klein is almost at a loss for words in describing it:

The House GOP’s debt limit bill — obtained by the National Review — isn’t a serious governing document. It’s not even a plausible opening bid. It’s a cry for help.
In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, Rep. Paul Ryan’s tax reform plan, the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, rewriting of ash coal regulations, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services Block Grant, more means-testing in Medicare, repeal of the Public Health trust fund, and more.
[T]his is really the [Republican] conference teaching Boehner a lesson. He had so little support to raise the debt ceiling at all — and so little trust from his members that he had a strategy to maximize their leverage — that this is the bill he had to present. At this point, Boehner either can’t stop them, or he’s too exhausted to try.

I suppose the other interpretation is that Boehner intends to eventually patch together something less psychotropic that can be passed with mostly Democratic votes (he has, after all, publicly and repeatedly said he won’t let the country default on its debts), and/or that business community pressure will be brought in like a deus ex machina to pull Republicans back from the brink. In that case, I suppose, there’s no reason to say no to any House Republican demand (though the leadership did, it is being reported, turn down including a late-term abortion ban similar to the one the House passed earlier this year).

It’s also possible, theoretically, that Boehner and company wanted to shock Democrats and the MSM with the consequences of his party’s impending defeat on appropriations in order to force some sort of compromise on measures designed to avoid a shutdown. But at this point, Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to accept any deal that doesn’t disable Obamacare, now that Boehner has embraced the idea that a one-year implementation delay is a “reasonable” alternative to “defunding” it. And that’s a non-starter for Democrats, even if they do prove willing to directly or indirectly violate constant pledges not to consider a debt limit bill with conditions.

So that gets back to why a lot of folk will soon be begging John Boehner to put aside his little do-it-yourself atomic bomb assembly kit and go back to threatening the conventional warfare of a government shutdown. TNR’s Noam Scheiber is already there:

[O]ne of two things is probably going to happen if we avoid a shutdown: Either John Boehner is going to turn around and appease irate conservatives by insisting on delaying Obamacare in exchange for raising the debt limit, thereby sending the government into default (since Obama isn’t negotiating). Or he’s going to back down and allow the debt ceiling to be raised with a minority of House Republicans and a majority of House Democrats, thereby further infuriating conservatives and almost certainly costing himself his job. (Recall that conservatives got more than halfway to the number of defections they needed to oust Boehner back in January, after he’d merely allowed a vote on a small tax increase when a much bigger one was kicking in automatically.) That is, either Boehner gets it or the global economy gets it, both of which Boehner would like to avoid even more than he’d like to avoid a shutdown.
If Boehner resigns himself to a shutdown, on the other hand, suddenly the future looks manageable. After a few days of punishing political abuse, Boehner will be able to appear before his caucus, shrug his shoulders in his distinctive Boehnerian way, and bleat that he executed the strategy conservatives demanded, but that the country is overwhelmingly opposed to it, as are most Senate Republicans and almost every semi-legitimate right-wing pundit and media outlet

That’s just great. I suppose begging John Boehner to be somewhat less destructive is a preferable alternative to caving to his demands. But it still involves a long ride on the crazy train in order to reach the engineer with a request to please turn around.

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.

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