In December 2010, congressional Republicans forced a contentious fight over tax policy, threatening to raise middle-class taxes and hurt the economy unless Democrats agreed to extend tax breaks for the wealthy. Four months later, the GOP very nearly forced a government shutdown, demanding Democrats accept spending cuts.
In July 2011, congressional Republicans instigated a debt-ceiling crisis, nearly forcing a default and global economic catastrophe, demanding steep spending cuts as a ransom. Three months later, the GOP threatened another government shutdown.
The point, of course, is that congressional Republicans are quite comfortable moving from one manufactured, self-imposed crisis to another, resolving one only to immediately pivot to the next, no matter the costs or consequences. It's become a terrifying m.o. that makes routine governing nearly impossible and problem solving a pipe dream.
And yet, so long as Republicans control part of Washington, the pattern will continue. Indeed, the stage is already set for the next crisis, which is now just two months away.
I'm referring, of course, to the one thing President Obama has said he will not budge on: the next debt-ceiling increase.
Technically, the nation reached its borrowing limit on Monday, but the Treasury Department will begin taking "extraordinary measures" that will extend the inflexible deadline until late February or perhaps early March, at which point Congress will either have to raise the ceiling -- as it's done 90 times over the last eight decades -- or the nation will default, trash the full faith and credit of the United States, and very likely crash the global economy.
The GOP line, at least for now, is to aim for the latter. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said over the weekend that without "meaningful" entitlement cuts, he'll refuse to allow the nation to pay its bills and force the country into default. Yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the same thing.
On the other hand, we have President Obama and congressional Democrats who have said they simply will not negotiate on the debt ceiling -- if Republicans take the nation hostage, and threaten to hurt Americans on purpose, Democrats will not pay the ransom. The president repeated the point last night, immediately after the fiscal agreement had cleared Congress.
There can be little doubt that the GOP will test Obama's resolve, working from the assumption that he'll blink before Republicans follow through on their threats to do deliberate national harm. But as of now, the White House insists Democrats will negotiate on all kinds of policies, but not this one.
The outcome is obviously important for those who hope to avoid a global depression, but it also matters insofar as evaluating the McConnell/Biden fiscal agreement. The bipartisan deal includes no cuts to Medicare, no cuts to Social Security, and in fact no new spending cuts at all. Why would Republicans swallow a compromise like that? In part because they assume they'll get those cuts in short order, demanding them in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase.
Obama and his team, not surprisingly, see things very differently -- they secured a decent deal with new tax revenue yesterday; they broke two decades of GOP opposition against higher rates, which was hard to imagine a year ago; and they have no intention of giving Republicans anything in exchange for a new debt limit.
If the White House stands firm, it'll make the fiscal agreement look that much better. If Obama caves, the deal will look that much worse.
As the machinations get underway in earnest, keep in mind we'll see bipartisan talks even if the president sticks to his guns because of a confluence of events: in two months, the automatic sequestration cuts will be set to kick in, and in March, funding for the government will run out. Both sides will discuss ways to avoid unpleasant outcomes, but that doesn't necessarily mean Obama is negotiating over the debt ceiling.
The key will be Boehner's arbitrary dollar-for-dollar rule on debt-ceiling increases -- for every dollar the limit goes up, the Speaker expects another dollar in savings. By this reasoning, Boehner seriously expects Democrats to agree to another $1.5 trillion in spending cuts -- independent of the sequester, the Budget Control Act, and the next budget fight -- sometime between now and the end of February.
Obama says that's not going to happen. Stay tuned.