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October 10, 2013 12:25 PM Boehner’s Bizarre Gambit

By Ed Kilgore

So it’s semi-official: John Boehner has announced a new proposal for an apparently unconditional six-week increase in the debt limit, but without any action to re-open the federal government via an appropriations measure. He laid out this proposal at a meeting of his conference this morning, and it apparently did not provoke any sort of revolt.

As noted here earlier, the political dynamics of this latest twist in the fiscal crisis plot are weird. Boehner and company (apparently supported by House “moderates” who thought a government shutdown would be a disaster and that a threatened debt default just would not happen) are the ones who insisted on taking the debt limit hostage, as against conservative zealots who wanted to take the operations of the federal government hostage in pursuance of a “Defunding Obamacare” message that has signally failed to gain much traction. It now appears the possibility of getting blamed for an actual debt default (or perhaps pressure from the business community) has convinced Boehner to do a complete 180 on the debt limit. But in order to keep conservatives on board, he has to keep the shutdown in place, even though that is the source of the GOP’s short-term problems.

Meanwhile, this gambit (if it survives the day) creates a lot of hard decisions for Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It will be easy for both Obama and congressional Democrats to reject Boehner’s proposal if the debt limit increase isn’t actually “clean”—i.e., it demands either specific policy concessions or a binding framework for budget talks. But if it is clean, how can Democrats oppose it without appearing to execute a hostage-taking of their own (the debt limit increase for a reopening of the federal government)? For his part, Obama has made actual budget talks contingent on both a debt limit increase and a reopening of the federal government, but has not made the former contingent on the latter.

There are a thousand things that could go wrong with Boehner’s gambit, and it obviously doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems created by GOP hostage-taking. But it could at least avoid an immediate financial and economic crisis, with the “winners” including the craziest of conservative Republicans whose appropriations-centered strategy will again be the official GOP position, and the big losers being federal employees looking at at least six more weeks of furloughs.

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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