Debt ceiling judo: Will Republicans snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

As the struggle over the debt ceiling approaches the August 2 deadline, it’s beginning to resemble a judo match, with sudden shifts in initiative and risk.

The Republicans initially staked out a hard position refusing to increase the current $14.3 trillion limit on the national debt without big spending cuts and no new taxes. They hoped this would force President Obama and the Democrats to agree to big cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.

But when negotiations for a big deal broke down on the issue of tax increases, Republicans were put on the defensive. They didn’t want to be blamed for whatever bad consequences follow from failure to raise the debt limit. Republican Senate Minority Leader McConnell even proposed letting the President raise the debt limit unilaterally as long as congressional objections were recorded, an idea quickly rejected by his fellow Republicans.

As the clock ticks down to the deadline, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has proposed a short-term fix that would raise the debt ceiling by just $1 trillion, enough until about next February, just as the election campaign is heating up, in exchange for the easiest $1 trillion in spending cuts. This would inject the issue of federal spending and borrowing into the campaign, which Democrats don’t want.

The divided Senate is unlikely to pass a short-term plan of its own, though Majority Leader Reid has proposed one. So if the Republican controlled House can pass the Boehner plan, it’s likely to be the only alternative to default or whatever bad consequences will follow August 2 without a debt ceiling increase.

The Senate will be reluctant to defeat the only alternative to default and itself assume the blame for default. President Obama has said he will veto a small debt ceiling increase insufficient to get the U.S. past next year’s election. But if the Boehner plan is adopted by both houses of Congress, and the President vetoes it, won’t the President bear the onus of killing the only alternative to default?

With 2 vacancies, Speaker Boehner needs a simple majority of 217 votes to get his short-term fix adopted by the House of Representatives. The Republican majority consists of 240 members, so rounding up the votes should be no problem. Except that it is. Enough House Republican purists are prepared to vote against their own leader to put passage of the Boehner plan in doubt.

Congress authorizes all federal spending and taxes. If it fails to authorize enough taxes to cover all the spending it authorizes, who’s at fault for the resulting deficit and national debt? If Congress then compounds the problem by refusing to authorize sufficient borrowing, it can and should bear the blame for whatever consequences follow.

But if Speaker Boehner can round up enough votes to get his short-term fix through the House, and if the Senate then ratifies the plan as the only alternative to default, where does that leave President Obama? A veto would put the onus of default on him.

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