The Politics of the Debt Ceiling Are Too Tempting

by Stuart Rothenberg June 29, 2011 · 1:01 PM EDT

With President Barack Obama’s job approval sliding, the stock market showing its nerves, the public increasingly pessimistic about a jobs rebound and signs of a slowing economy everywhere, the president looks to be increasingly in trouble.

Trying to take advantage of what they see as an opportunity, Congressional Republicans seem eager to play a game of chicken with Obama and his party, calling for Democrats to give into their demands on spending and entitlements in return for raising the debt ceiling.

The Republican position of no new taxes — even to lower the deficit — is clear, consistent and non-negotiable. There is no sign that anyone in the party’s Congressional leadership is laying the groundwork among the base for a deal that includes additional revenue, from taxes to fees or whatever you want to call it.

That means we will continue to head to the early August debt ceiling deadline with Republicans essentially arguing that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.”

By taking additional revenue off the negotiating table, Republicans have sought to pre-judge a key aspect of any talks. The question is no longer how to lower the deficit (which would leave additional revenue, the Democratic preference, part of the negotiation). It’s now only how much to cut spending and where to cut it.

Not surprisingly, both parties continue to try to make partisan points rather than look for a true compromise.

The statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is a case in point.

“President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit. He can’t have both. But we need to hear from him,” they said in a joint statement last week.

Of course, simply saying something is a choice doesn’t make it so. A bipartisan plan could include additional revenue if cutting the deficit is the real goal. But it isn’t for Republicans. They have rolled three different goals — less government, less spending and a lower deficit — into one and are sticking with their non-negotiable premise.

There isn’t anything wrong with their wish list, but setting up the current negotiations over raising the debt ceiling as being about either higher taxes or deficit reduction is a transparently false choice and is little more than a phony public relations spin.

Democrats at least appear willing to negotiate a compromise package, which would include additional revenue and spending cuts. But it’s hard to give them too much credit, given the way they jumped on spending cuts in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal or how they characterized House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) exit from budget talks late last week.

Democratic strategists immediately fell back into their mode of attacking Republicans for wanting to hurt old people, giving no sign that anyone of clout in the party is willing to climb out on the ledge with Ryan to solve the fundamental problem of entitlement spending.

The statement issued last Thursday by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is a case in point.

After criticizing Cantor’s exit from the budget talks, Braley said: “We can’t afford to put our veterans, our seniors and our entire economy in jeopardy because a few members of Congress don’t want to do the work they were sent here to do.”

Braley’s approach, then, was to respond with mindless partisan rhetoric that will help him move up the House leadership ladder but won’t move the Congress to resolve a serious problem.

Rep. Xavier Becerra’s (D-Calif.) comment that Republicans are “running away from the mess they created” also shows he is fitting right in at the Capitol. It’s all the opposition’s fault.

Republicans want to drag President Obama into the middle of negotiations, understanding that would put him between a rock and a hard place. He either has to agree to take additional revenue off the table, creating a firestorm in his party, or he has to look as if he wants higher taxes and isn’t sufficiently committed to deficit reduction.

It’s a terrible place for the president to be — but it’s the only place he ought to be, given the importance of the negotiations and the necessity of an agreement.

Still, it’s hard to believe an agreement between the parties is imminent. After all, we are still five weeks away from the deadline by which Congress must act, so what politician could possibly pass up a whole month of demonizing the opposition by charging it is in bed with Big Oil, siding with billionaires over the middle class, opposed to any spending cuts and intent on taxing all of us into the poor house?

Get set for a long, hot month of July.