The nation's debt ceiling is back in the news this week and for all the old, familiar reasons. By month's end, it will need to be raised or the U.S. Treasury will run out of money to pay the country's outstanding bills, and House Republicans are once again looking to hold the authorizing legislation hostage in return for some sort of concession.
What will it be this time? For a while, it looked like they would insist on some changes to Obamacare, specifically, the so-called "risk corridors," a provision of the Affordable Care Act that limits how much insurance companies can profit or lose by selling health insurance policies through exchanges during the first three years. But it turns out that repealing them would actually increase the deficit, so that was a no-go.
Apparently, there was also talk during the GOP's recent conference on the Eastern Shore that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline might also be attached to raising the debt ceiling. Speeding up that approval process on behalf of the TransCanada Corp. has long been high on the conservative wish list even though the project is fraught with controversy from the possibility it will raise the cost of petroleum in the U.S. to how it may put important underground freshwater supplies at risk and, by facilitating the exploitation of Western Canada's tar sands, how it will boost greenhouse gas emissions precipitously.
But that has fallen out of favor, too. Now the name of the game seems to be finding some ancillary provision to attach that will attract a few Democratic votes and thus make up for the subset of Republicans who won't vote for a debt ceiling increase no matter what. Some of the ideas floating around are an extension of the so-called Medicare "doc fix" — a periodic bit of legislation that stops physicians' reimbursement rates from plummeting — or a reversal in the recent cuts to the cost of living adjustment for military retirees. That is to say, Republicans have gone from claiming they would draw a line in the sand over the debt limit as a means to protest out of control federal spending to refusing to increase the limit unless it's accompanied by more spending.
It's not difficult to predict how this little theatrical display will proceed, as we've gone down this road before. President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats will insist on a "clean" bill to raise the debt ceiling and point out that putting the nation's credit rating at risk — or worse, actually defaulting — would increase the federal debt by billions of dollars.
The usual pattern would be for Republicans to kick up a fuss, make their usual appearances on their preferred cable television outlet and argue that this or that concession is reasonable. They would play to their tea party base as long as they can before eventually backing down and raising the debt ceiling at or near the last possible moment with Democratic votes rather than relying on a House Republican majority.
But in the wake of a government shutdown so disastrous for the GOP that it for a time overshadowed even the bungled Obamacare rollout, there are signs that Republicans' hearts just aren't in it this time. To be sure, some tea party types are still holding out for cuts to entitlements or $1 in spending reductions for every $2 in increased debt capacity. But others sound eager to get past the whole issue. Even Rep. Michele Bachmann told The Washington Post "You've got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don't think it's the time to fight."
Even so, the growing acceptance among House Republicans that they will eventually pass a clean (or nearly so) increase to the debt ceiling doesn't seem to signal that the government shutdown, in Mr. Obama's words, "broke the fever" that has taken hold of the GOP in recent years. They are just as disinclined as ever to work with him on immigration reform, economic stimulus, climate change or anything else. Rather, they appear merely to have concluded that they have the advantage heading into the fall's midterm elections and don't want to do anything to rock the boat. But whatever the reason, if Republicans have come to the conclusion that holding the global economy hostage is a bad idea, we'll count that as a small victory.
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