House GOP, choosing battles, to let debt limit go without a fight?

As House Republicans head off to their annual retreat in Maryland, Politico reports that one item that had been expected to dominate the strategizing -- what to do about the debt limit -- may already be settled.

According to the site's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan, GOP leaders have concluded that there's nothing to be gained from waging a pitched battle over raising the debt limit. Sure, they'll attach some strings to their debt-limit bill, but they're not prepared to go to the mat with Senate Democrats and the White House to keep them in the final version of the measure.

If that's true, it's yet another sign that savvy, long-game Republicans are back in charge in the House.

The political situation today is tremendously favorable to the GOP, thanks largely to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act's insurance buying exchanges. According to Gallup, President Obama's approval ratings have slid pretty steadily since mid-November, when the public's attention shifted from the GOP-triggered government shutdown to the manifest problems with Obamacare. Although he's not on the ticket in the fall, Obama still looks like an albatross for Democratic Senate and House candidates, particularly in states that weren't particularly fond of him to begin with, where Democrats are trying to defend several Senate seats.

The challenge for Republicans will be to keep the public focused on the unpopular healthcare law and the confidence-draining economy. Of course, there's an upside to both issues: some people have gotten better, more affordable insurance plans for 2014 thanks to the new law, and the economy is slowly improving. But at the moment, the negatives far outweigh the positives.

So the biggest mistake the House GOP could make now is to gin up another crisis in Washington, scaring Wall Street and undermining the recovery. That's what the last big faceoff over the debt ceiling did in 2011, and there's no reason to believe that another round of brinkmanship would produce a different result.

The tea party faction in the House would obviously not be happy if Republicans quietly acceded to the administration's request for a higher debt limit. So the risk for some Republicans is that they'll face a stronger challenge in the primaries if they don't demand more spending cuts or entitlement reforms in exchange for more borrowing authority. That, after all, is the demand that Speaker John A. Boehner repeated last year, although he dropped it when the deal was struck to reopen the shuttered federal agencies.

But Republicans boxed themselves into a debt-limit corner earlier this month when they approved the spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year. That bill, along with the December budget resolution that set spending limits through September 2015, relies on more borrowing than the current debt limit permits. It's hard to vote for spending one day and then refuse to pay for it just a few weeks later.

(Although I wouldn't be surprised if most Republicans voted against the clean debt-limit increase, forcing Democrats to put up the votes needed to pass it. That way, they can tell their constituents that they opposed increasing the national debt without cutting spending but the Democrats wouldn't have it any other way.)

Anyway, as long as Obama is in the public doghouse, the smart thing for Republicans to do is not join him there. They can continue to tout their ideas for creating jobs and spurring the economy while opposing Obama's, but they can't be seen as actively making things worse for people.

It seems like an obvious strategy, but the GOP's tea party wing has repeatedly pushed the leadership to go the other way in its zeal for spending cuts. Until now, evidently.


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