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October 07, 2013 10:02 AM Battle Stations

By Ed Kilgore

With ten days to go until the October 17 date on which the Treasury Department has indicated the federal government’s debt limit will be breached, the president and Speaker John Boehner have publicly embraced mutually exclusive positions. The White House has been clearly warning for many weeks that Obama will not negotiate on a debt limit increase. And Boehner is refusing to bring to a vote a “clean” increase, as he reportedly mulls a mini-jumbo assortment of concessions ranging from the repeal of Affordable Care Act provisions to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline he will demand in exchange for avoiding a debt default.

And while Boehner has nonsensically been promising he won’t allow a debt default to happen, his negotiating position appears to be entirely controlled by the minority of his caucus that considers a default either the lesser of available evils, or perhaps a good bracing reminder to the “takers” that their livelihoods exist at the sufferance of virtuous Americans who would rather enter another recession than tolerate additional “socialism.”

The obvious short-term strategy for Democrats in this situation is to test Boehner’s control of the House by pushing for a vote on a clean CR/debt limit package, with a rare discharge petition circulating in the background to make the effort more than a mere gesture. In theory, there should be enough Republicans disgruntled by brinkmanship to combine with virtually all House Democrats to provide a majority. But discharge petitions are tricky, and “moderate” Republicans will inevitably be reluctant to humiliate Boehner, which could lead to a more radical leadership. It’s almost certain that the “moderates” would insist on some face-saving concessions for Boehner before cooperating with Democrats, and unless they involve negotiations projected into the relatively distant future, it’s hard to see how they would fail to run afoul of the White House “no negotiations” tripwire.

And despite the MSM clamor for a “compromise,” I’m impressed so far at the Democratic solidarity favoring the “no negotiations” position. Jonathan Chait, who is generally flexible when it comes to budget negotiations, is calling the debt limit crisis a “domestic Cuban missile crisis,” and articulates a very broadly shared argument against any concessions:

Obama foolishly set the precedent in 2011 that he would let Congress jack him up for a debt-ceiling hike. He now has to crush the practice completely, lest it become ritualized. Obama not only must refuse to trade concessions for a debt-ceiling hike; he has to make it clear that he will endure default before he submits to ransom. To pay a ransom now, even a tiny one, would ensure an endless succession of debt-ceiling ransoms until, eventually, the two sides fail to agree on the correct size of the ransom and default follows.

So we can expect both parties to spend the next few days at battle stations. Yes, elements of the MSM will with increasing urgency demand that Obama make concessions they already favor (chained CPI, anybody?). And the business community will quite likely be sufficiently exercised by the prospect of trillions of dollars in lost growth and profits to push their Republican buddies to sober up. But the White House needs to be very clear privately with such “brokers” that “no negotiations” is by definition a non-negotiable position.

Having very deliberately gone down this path, Obama has no choice but to stay on it. That means no conciliatory gestures to Boehner, no back-channel discussions with John McCain, no trial balloons in the media. Boehner must lose face (and perhaps his gavel) and the Tea Folk must be defeated. There’s really no alternative this time around unless Obama wants to permanently sacrifice his credibility with enemies and friends alike.

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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