Not another debt limit fight [Editorial]

Well, so much for the return of reason to the Congressional budget debate.

Even before the ink was dry on the bipartisan agreement that is supposed to stabilize the budget debate for the next two years — and before the Senate has even voted on the darn thing — Rep. Paul Ryan was on national television this past weekend speculating on what concessions he expects to extract for raising the debt ceiling.

"We don't want nothing out of this debt limit," the House budget chairman warned on Fox News. "We're going to decide what it is we're going to accomplish out of this debt limit fight."

Now, theoretically, the GOP caucus might decide that what they want is for the U.S. to pay its outstanding bills and to bring stability to the economy and signal to the investors and the markets that the days of playing chicken over the nation's credit rating are over. In which case, they'll ask for nothing more problematic than a quick vote on a clean bill.

But we strongly suspect Mr. Ryan fully expects to push for cuts in domestic spending that will have adverse consequences for the poor and middle class. That's what his party has done in the past — which is what has gotten the nation a reduced credit rating in 2011, upheaval in the financial markets and likely delayed fixes to sequestration that were finally addressed by the budget compromise that's now before the Senate.

What's shocking is not that the old playbook would be pulled out, it's that Mr. Ryan would be the one leading the charge. This is the gentleman who, just a few days earlier, was standing with Sen. Patty Murray, his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, talking about the virtues of compromise and avoiding the cycle of brinkmanship that has plagued Washington in the recent past.

It's not as if Speaker John Boehner didn't have his back on the budget deal. Mr. Boehner's willingness to lash out at right-wing groups seeking rejection of the Ryan-Murray compromise last week offered as much reason for optimism as the agreement itself. "They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," he said last week. "This is ridiculous."

The speaker noted it was this same tea party wing that marched the GOP straight into the disastrous policy of holding much of the federal government hostage over Obamacare. That shutdown accomplished nothing other than costing the government billions, scaring a lot of Americans and driving down the party's voter approval ratings.

So one had every reason to think that Republicans in the House had decided that taking hostages is bad, self-destructive politics. If so, that point of view proved highly perishable. The debt ceiling is expected to be reached in early March.

Back during the government shutdown, President Barack Obama said that he wouldn't negotiate over the debt limit. We trust that he will stick with that policy and not reward and encourage further hostage-taking. Raising the debt limit merely authorizes the government to pay for its outstanding obligations and doesn't approve new spending. Passing such a measure is a matter of bookkeeping while failing to act (or rejecting it) puts the country at risk of default. This is not something over which negotiations are possible.

Two years ago, the standoff over the debt ceiling raised borrowing costs by $18.9 billion, according to one bipartisan estimate. A default would surely be worse — sending a message that U.S. credit worthiness is shaky, which could be disastrous not only for this country but for many others where the value of the dollar is critically important.

So why make the push now? To demonstrate to Heritage Action or the Club for Growth that Speaker Boehner was just kidding and that the party is willing to put the global economy at risk in order to show fealty to the right-wing? If Republicans think they would somehow avoid blame, they are clearly delusional. They didn't avoid blame after the government shutdown, and they surely wouldn't after default.

The best one can hope is that this is a lot of hot air, a bit of payback to lighten the criticism that is coming their way over the compromise and Mr. Boehner's backlash. After all, it's political fundraising season out there, and bluster comes with the territory. Even so, it's a dispiriting way to end the year for an embarrassingly unproductive Congress.

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