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October 08, 2013 9:58 AM Comparative Disarray

By Ed Kilgore

Today’s big MSM meme could well be “disarray in both parties” over fiscal issues. But let’s take a look at where they actually are on the biggest challenge, the impending debt limit breach.

Politico’s Raju and Bresnahan have a prominently placed item this morning entitled “Democratic cracks open in debt-limit fight.” There’s actually just one “crack” the article discusses, involving the president’s signal that he’s “open” to a short-term debt limit increase so long as it comes with no conditions, even as the Senate prepares to debate a trillion-dollar increase designed to get the federal government through the 2014 election year.

Democrats began to raise concerns privately that the White House appeared to be softening its iron-clad position.
“This is very disconcerting to us,” a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said on condition of anonymity, referring to comments by the president’s top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, at POLITICO’S Playbook Breakfast on Monday. “All along, the president and White House have been firm on what they want, both in a [government funding bill] and debt ceiling. So we’re concerned about this….”
The Democratic discord started Monday morning when Sperling said the White House would be open to a two- to three-week increase to avert the Oct. 17 deadline when the U.S. government may begin to default on its $16.7 trillion debt. The comments were a shift from the position the White House took in the 2011 debt fight, when it demanded that Congress extend the debt ceiling through the 2012 elections.

OMG! Obama’s caving again!

Not really. The “no short term debt limit increase” position of 2011 was in the context of a deal where Obama was making major substantive concessions to the GOP. The White House didn’t want Republicans to come back a few weeks or months later and ask for more. This time around, Obama’s ruled out concessions in connection with the debt limit. So it really doesn’t matter how often the GOP asks for debt-limit related concessions so long as the answer remains “no.”

Here’s what may be the real Senate Democratic objection to the idea of a short-term debt limit increase:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “What does short-term buy us? That buys us Thanksgiving in Washington.”

Well, no offense to Durbin and to shutdown-ravaged staffs who aren’t jazzed about the idea, but it’s often rather pleasant in the Washington area in late November, and avoiding a debt default is a reasonably big deal. If the White House starts getting happy feet on its “no substantive concessions for a debt limit increase” stance, then that is a problem.

Meanwhile, the Senate itself is going to take up its own “clean” debt limit measure today, and the big question is whether Harry Reid can shake loose six GOP senators to kill a filibuster. Ezra Klein counts Mark Kirk and Lisa Murkowski as certain votes for cloture, and figures John McCain will go along, which usually means amigos Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte are in tow. So it could be close, which means the yelling and screaming among conservatives about RINOs and squishes and stabs in the back could be intense.

But more fundamentally, Republicans appear to be in genuine disarray over the relationship of the CR to the debt limit, and whether screwing up Obamacare or the rest of the conservative agenda is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Today Erick Erickson is still calling for a quick debt limit increase so that the GOP can refocus on “defunding Obamacare” through the appropriations deadlock. And National Review’s Robert Costa reports House conservatives aren’t giving John Boehner much leeway to cut a debt limit deal:

Speaker John Boehner may be trying to finalize a plan to raise the debt limit, but House conservatives are already skeptical of his efforts. In interviews, several of them tell me they’re unlikely to support any deal that may emerge.

“They may try to throw the kitchen sink at the debt limit, but I don’t think our conference will be amenable for settling for a collection of things after we’ve fought so hard,” says Representative Scott Garrett (R., N.J.). “If it doesn’t have a full delay or defund of Obamacare, I know I and many others will not be able to support whatever the leadership proposes. If it’s just a repeal of the medical-device tax, or chained CPI, that won’t be enough.”

As always, Paul Broun is good for a psychotic quote:

Representative Paul Broun (R., Ga.) agrees, and says Boehner risks an internal rebellion if he decides to broker a compromise. “America is going to be destroyed by Obamacare, so whatever deal is put together must at least reschedule the implementation of Obamacare,” he says. “This law is going to destroy America and everything in America, and we need to stop it.”

But here’s the bottom line:

“I think you’d see at least 50 to 60 Republicans break with Boehner if he went for something small,” predicts a House GOP aide who works closely with conservative members. “They’re also reluctant to even give Boehner a short-term debt-limit extension unless he gets something big in return. But that’s the one area where Boehner may have room to maneuver. He could tell them, ‘I’m with you fighting, but let’s just extend the fight a few weeks.’”

It’s interesting to watch conservatives debate exactly how many concessions from Obama they’ll consider sufficient when the White House has very consistently argued the number will be zero. It’s all the more reason Obama can’t even hint at changing that position, but may indeed want to be open to an unconditional short-term debt limit increase that enables Republicans to work out their many disagreements and delusions.

All in all, Democratic “disarray” looks a lot more manageable by contrast.

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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