Just a few weeks ago, congressional Republicans had a vague-but-consistent position on the debt ceiling. They knew it would have to be raised by mid-February, but before GOP members honored their obligations, they would demand that President Obama and Democrats accept over $1 trillion in spending cuts. Under the Republican plan, no ransom meant no deal.
It's hard to overstate how quickly this strategy fell apart. Under pressure from the business community, and with President Obama holding firm, House GOP leaders caved on Friday, announcing they would let the hostage go for practically nothing. And today, Republicans suspended the debt ceiling in exchange for no spending cuts at all.
The House passed legislation Wednesday to suspend the limit on the nation's borrowing authority for nearly four months, a move that would eliminate the threat of a government default and give lawmakers more time to address other looming budget deadlines.
House lawmakers voted 285-144 to pass the bill (HR 325) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday morning that his chamber would clear the measure for the president's signature. And although the White House would prefer a long-term extension of borrowing authority, President Barack Obama has said he would not oppose the legislation.
The bill would suspend the debt limit through May 18, then automatically increase the current $16.4 trillion ceiling to accommodate additional debt accumulated before that date.
As we discussed yesterday, by suspending the debt ceiling, instead of raising it, this bill effectively makes it so that there is no debt limit between now and mid-May.
Today's vote was not, however, an entirely clean bill.
It suspend the debt ceiling through May 18, with the expectations that Congress will pass a budget by April. And if lawmakers fail to do so? Under the plan approved today, Congress won't get paid. (I'm still fairly confident that's unconstitutional, though the House doesn't seem to care.)
Because Democrats preferred a clean debt-ceiling bill to this, GOP leaders relied primarily (but not exclusively) on Republican votes to pass the proposal -- most House Republicans supported the bill (199 to 33), while most House Dems opposed it (86 to 111).
House Speaker John Boehner, in other words, did not have to ignore the so-called "Hastert Rule" on this one. The bill would have failed without Democratic support, but it nevertheless enjoyed a "majority of the majority."
That said, in the bigger picture, Republicans had a bad hand and played it poorly. They threatened to crash the economy unless they got their way, but the White House simply didn't believe the GOP was prepared to shoot the hostage. As quickly became clear, this assumption was correct -- Republicans made threats they couldn't back up, which made the cave that much more humiliating.
Yes, the resolution is temporary, and yes, the stage is still set for ugly fights on automatic sequestration cuts and keeping the government's lights on. Time will tell how severe the looming standoffs become.
But the key takeaway today is pretty straightforward: Republicans said they were prepared to force the nation into default but they weren't. When Obama didn't budge, the GOP's house of cards collapsed.