The GOP Thinks Obama Is Bluffing

by Jonathan Strong
Republicans in the House remain totally intransigent on the debt ceiling.

House Republicans are heading into a showdown with Obama over the debt ceiling, convinced that they have the upper hand politically and will be able to force the president to capitulate.

The president vows he won’t negotiate with Republicans over the issue at all. But, one GOP aide contends, “He thinks he’s in a happy place right now, but it’s going to quickly turn into a bad place.”

David Winston, a pollster for House Republicans, explained that Obama’s position is as dangerous to him as shutting the government down is to the GOP.

“When the president stands up and says ‘I will not negotiate,’ that’s not particularly tenable either. . . . People look at the debt ceiling as, ‘If we’re that broke, why are we asking to be able to put more money on the credit card?’” he told me.

Senior GOP lawmakers are banking on receiving modest support for the debt-ceiling bill from vulnerable Democrats, which will help put the heat on Obama. That will combine with the well-known concerns that many Democrats have about the disastrous Obamacare roll-out. (Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia came out in favor of delaying the individual mandate Wednesday morning.)

“The best thing we can do to turn up the heat on the president — and Senate Democrats — is to pass a House bill that couples the debt limit with popular spending cuts and reforms to get our economy going again and create jobs,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.

But Democrats are certainly talking a big game. In a number of interviews with senior lawmakers and key aides on the left side of the aisle, they too said they think their adversaries will cave.

President Obama reiterated today that he refuses to negotiate over the debt ceiling, ripping the GOP at a campaign-style rally for trying to “blackmail” him. One of his top aides said on CNN that he won’t negotiate with “people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” and the president’s top pollster gave an interview saying Republicans are “deluding” themselves in thinking their tactic will work.

House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, taking questions while walking down a Capitol staircase, stopped to deliver the point as he grew visibly angry.

“They have a responsibility to their country,” Hoyer told me, wagging his finger. “They have a responsibility to their constituents and their children. They are damaging the country and the public ought to make them pay a price,” he added.

At a meeting last night with House Democrats, top White House aide Rob Nabors assured Democrats that the president will refuse to budge.

“Rob Nabors underscored it. And [White House chief of staff] Dennis [McDonough] has supported that. The position of the White House is they will not negotiate over the debt ceiling. I don’t think they should, and I hope they won’t,” Representative Jim Moran, a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, tells me.

“There are more than 100 million people who would lose some form of benefit on Day One if the government can’t pay its bills, and of course it would cause chaos internationally in the financial markets,” Moran says.

“They can’t do that. And if they do, I think there will be repercussions. If we were Machiavellian we would be hoping they would be that crazy,” he adds.

Capitol Hill is still consumed with small questions: What exact form will the CR take? How could Ted Cruz stand so long without going to the bathroom?

But no one seems to have an answer for how Republicans and Democrats will bridge the massive chasm between their positions on the debt ceiling, a far more weighty issue than a short government shutdown.

The Democrats’ position is at odds with recent history. Obama has previously negotiated over the issue, for one.

And the notion that House Republicans will pass a “clean” debt ceiling bill is pure fantasy.

The current bill House leadership has put together to garner the necessary votes to pass it on the floor with only Republican support is breathtaking in its scope, combining a one-year Obamacare delay, tax-reform instructions, entitlement reforms, and a grab bag of controversial anti-regulatory bills.

And it still ran into significant resistance from the right flank of Speaker John Boehner’s conference for not containing enough spending cuts.

At a Republican Study Committee meeting, Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a former chairman of the group, delivered a passionate defense of the plan, as did Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But Texas representative Joe Barton led dissenters who argued it didn’t focus enough on reducing spending of entitlement programs in line with the “Williamsburg Accord,” an agreement reached between Boehner and conservatives at the GOP’s retreat last January, which extended the debt ceiling temporarily.

Other conservatives are resisting the bill, for now, because they want to see the CR fight play out, not wanting to interfere with Senator Ted Cruz’s battle in the upper chamber.

There were signs of hope for the bill. Representative Michele Bachmann, for instance, who has never once voted for a debt-ceiling increase, told me she would support it. But the fact that even the current bill is something of a lift speaks volumes.

Strangely, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be particularly concerned.

“Don’t overreact. Don’t get too nervous. When I get nervous, I’ll let you know,” said one senior GOP member.

Hoyer says that 190 House Democrats are ready to vote for a clean debt-ceiling bill. “That means the Republicans only need 28 responsible people on their side of the aisle to vote,” he says.

That’s true, but it would also likely bring about the end of Boehner’s tenure as speaker, making him unlikely to opt for it.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said publicly there are zero conversations between the two parties taking place behind the scenes to resolve the issue.

It’s a high-stakes blinking contest both sides think they can win.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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