Debt ceiling fight splits Republicans, puts presidential candidates on hot seat

The 2012 Presidential election may be effectively over this week as Republicans split over their differing positions on the debt ceiling.

For months Republicans have been united that there would be no Republican support for raising the debt ceiling without massive spending cuts and no tax increase. Hardliners like Michele Bachmann have argued the federal government has plenty of money to make payments on debt, and meet our military, Social Security, and Medicare obligations, without having to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

Of course there would be no money available for other federal departments and functions like Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, Education, Commerce, Transportation, and Interior. But that’s okay with the hardliners who, in the absence of a comprehensive budget agreement cutting government spending, would be willing to have those departments de-funded by default.

But as the debt ceiling deadline of August 2, as announced by Treasury Secretary Geithner approaches, some Republicans are breaking ranks. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, recognizing that the Republican position on the debt ceiling is a political loser, wants to cut their losses by ceding authority to President Obama to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, subject to congressional disapproval which the President is free to veto.

The White House has adroitly mobilized public opinion against the Republicans by warning that failure to raise the debt ceiling would endanger not agricultural subsidies or high-speed rail or green energy projects, all of which the administration could continue to fund, but rather debt service, Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits and military pay.

The Republicans are now trapped by their earlier rhetoric and divided. Whatever they do, they lose and end up fighting among themselves. If they cave and let President Obama raise the debt ceiling without a budget agreement, they hand a huge victory to the President, everyone knowing the Bush tax cuts will then expire automatically.

If they block any congressional action on the debt ceiling, polls show Republicans will be blamed for any consequences, and the President may be able to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally anyway without congressional action.

Most damaged of all are the Republican presidential candidates who will now all have to answer the question whether they would support the McConnell compromise. If they say yes, they lose the backing of half the Republican base. And if they say no, they accept being characterized as fanatic extremists among moderates and independents, a label which has been, deservedly or not, successfully pinned onto the hardliners.

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