With the various alternative schemes no longer under consideration, House Republicans are having to come to terms with two difficult questions: just how far are they prepared to take their hostage strategy and how prepared are they to shoot the hostage and deal with the consequences?
Politico has a lengthy piece today, reporting, "House Republicans are seriously entertaining dramatic steps, including default or shutting down the government, to force President Barack Obama to finally cut spending by the end of March." That Obama has already cut spending isn't mentioned, but the point of the article is that the House GOP is every bit as crazy as it seems.
The idea of allowing the country to default by refusing to increase the debt limit is getting more widespread and serious traction among House Republicans than people realize, though GOP leaders think shutting down the government is the much more likely outcome of the spending fights this winter.
"I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we're serious," House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told us.
If you're thinking "make sure [the other guy] understands that we're serious" sounds like a cliched phrase usually uttered by a hostage taker in an action movie, you and I are on the same page.
The Politico piece goes on to report, "To the vast majority of House Republicans, it is far riskier long term to pile up new debt than it is to test the market and economic reaction of default or closing down the government."
Since the article doesn't mention it, I can only hope folks realize that the debt ceiling has nothing to do with "piling up new debt," but rather, pays for spending that's already happened.
But the larger takeaway here is that House Republicans want everyone to know they're fully prepared to follow through on their threats. Indeed, many of them are apparently looking forward to it.
GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner "may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system," said a top GOP leadership adviser. "We might need to do that for member-management purposes -- so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they're fighting."
"Get it out of their system"? Republicans are prepared to force a crisis ... because it would make them feel better about themselves?
Obama assumes Republicans would never be so foolish as to put the economy at risk to win a spending fight. Conservatives say he's definitely wrong on that score. They say he's the foolish and reckless one for piling up $6 trillion in debt on his watch.
It's unfortunate that the Politico passes along so many of these Republican allegations without scrutiny, but it's worth noting, in case anyone's forgotten, that (a) trashing the full faith and credit of the United States would almost certainly produce catastrophic results; (b) Republicans would get the blame for hurting Americans on purpose; and (c) the $6 trillion in new debt is largely the result of Republican policies.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) added, "No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card."
Of course, though Politico doesn't mention it, this doesn't make any sense. Paying for spending that's already happened is not giving the president anything, and certainly doesn't give him a limitless credit card. Once again, it's not complicated: Congress has the power of the purse, and the White House can't spend money that Congress hasn't already appropriated.
Starting Monday, Boehner will huddle with his leadership team to discuss his preliminary thinking on a spending strategy. A source who attended meetings to prepare for those private talks said GOP leaders are authentically at a loss on how to control members who don't respond to the normal incentives of wanting to help party leaders or of avoiding situations -- like default -- that could be public relations nightmares.
Perhaps Democrats are supposed to read this and think, "Well, we better pay the ransom and gut Social Security and Medicare, since Boehner can't control his radicalized caucus."
Indeed, the Politico piece added that House Republicans not only are prepared to create a crisis, but will also refuse to compromise on the automatic sequestration cuts, no matter the consequences.
How much of this is bluffing through the media and how much of it is genuine insanity is open to debate, but at this point, with about 45 days to go before some very serious trouble, the House GOP is well past the limits of what's generally considered acceptable under modern political norms.