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Politics

Debt ceiling bargaining

So the House overwhelmingly rejected the “clean” debt ceiling vote. No surprise there. Everyone agrees it was a stunt crafted primarily for use in Republican talking points. You see, the White House has to agree to additional spending cuts because there just aren’t enough votes to approve an increase to the debt ceiling without them. Or as Jackie Calmes describes it:

The preordained outcome followed several acts of odd political theater on the House floor: Republicans urged the defeat of their own measure, while Democrats — who not long ago were seeking just such a vote to raise the debt ceiling without attaching spending cuts — assailed Republicans for bringing it up, saying its certain defeat might unnerve the financial markets.

Just in case, Republican leaders scheduled the vote for after the stock market’s close, and in the preceding days called Wall Street executives to assure them that the vote was just for show, to show Mr. Obama that he would have to make concessions in budget negotiations if a debt-limit increase is to pass Congress.

If the White House has had a strategy for dealing with this issue, they haven’t shown any indication of it all year. There’s been no messaging whatsoever to prepare the public for this symbolic tug-of-war, and Americans remain opposed to the notion of adding to the debt — no surprise there. Likewise, it would seem the White House’s only negotiating strategy has been simply to wait for the Republicans to self-immolate as they lunge further and further to the right.

What Obama and the White House should have done six months ago (not that anybody’s asked me) is draw a line in the sand at the start of the discussion and said this issue is not up for negotiation. It is too critical to be subjected to the typical political gamesmanship. Both sides agree it must eventually pass. Republicans in Congress have voted repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling previously (Paul Ryan and John Boehner included), and Democrats (Obama included) have demagogued the issue themselves when Bush was president. But in the past the fate of the measure was never in doubt. It was symbolism. Tying the fate of the bill this year to controversial policy reforms is extortion, not negotiation.

That should have been the mantra from everybody in the administration month after month leading up to today’s vote. There is a time and place for debate over spending cuts and caps, etc. — say, the wrangling that’s already begun over next year’s budget. Approving an increase in the debt ceiling — voting no on defaulting on our debts — should not be up for negotiation. Period. End of story.

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