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By Tom Cushing

Budget Ceiling Reduxxx: What happens this time?

Uploaded: Sep 22, 2013

Since we all did so well spinning the wheel of fortunes in the Syria chemical weapons crisis two weeks ago, let's now take a shot at predicting the outcome of the next regular coming of the debt ceiling 'crisis.' For anyone who's been locally pre-occupied with trailside bums, violent evictions, a very, very dead deer or those fabulous A's (and who hasn't?), here's where matters stand.

The federal government must get congressional approval to take-on public debt that exceeds the total it has previously approved. That approval has been sought and obtained 77 times since World War II; the debt figure is currently $16.99 trillion. The first 75 increases were voted without much incident. In return for the most recent two raises, however, the Republican-led House of Representatives extracted significant concessions by holding up the process, risking a government shutdown and eventual default on the country's incurred obligations. Remember that game-of-chicken scene in the original Footloose movie? It's been a bit like that – the Dems swerve first (the tractor-of-state, of course, always ends-up in the canal).

This time, the gambit is seemingly over the impending implementation, at long last, of ObamaCare. Having discovered that voting to repeal it 42 times has not had the desired impact, the House has now voted to defund ObamaCare in return for raising the debt ceiling. Without approval of some increase, the national government shuts down in early October, with default on its bills to follow soon thereafter.

What do you think will happen here? Since I brought it up, I'll take my shot at it. After all, I whiffed completely on Syria (and happily so), so here it is: I think the GOP will overplay its hand on Obamacare, in case that's the hand they're really playing. If not, they may get significant concessions from an Administration intent on protecting its signature achievement.

Option 1 – they really do care about ObamaCare. Being an optimist in the Churchillian sense ("the Americans always do the right thing, after they've exhausted all other options"), I believe the Republicans will blink this time. First, they're taking-on the centerpiece accomplishment of the Obama Administration, and the Prez will fight like hell to keep it. It's not like some unknown budget line-item whose pain can be spread among thousands of small cuts here-and-there. His Party, while increasingly unhappy left-and-right, presents a pretty united front on this issue.

Second, the unnecessary nature of this 'crisis' and the identity of its architects are by now pretty well-understood. If the GOP is really determined to hunker-down on this, they risk blame for the consequences: not just that poor Democrats will be hurt, but that the troops won't get paid, either, and entire economy's fragile recovery will be imperiled. Meaning that rock-ribbed Republican business, big and small, will also be affected. No less a potent normal ally than The US Chamber of Commerce recognizes this and has already called-on the Caucus, publicly, to back-off. Other allie$ will follow

Third, when you look at the Republican House caucus, it's not a monolith. Speaker Boehner presides over a fractious bunch that presents a spectrum of opinion from well-beyond crazy (Mr. Gohmert comes to mind) through traditional conservatives, theocons and neocons to moderate Ripons and RINOs (or, as we used to call them, back when I was one: Republicans). Only 49 of the 234 actually self-identify with the Tea Party, but they are currently running the show. It's not clear to me that the Speaker has the persuasive gifts and tools to hold that coalition together as the other members are asked to carry the water of their most extreme elements.

The situation reminds me of the internal GOP hara-kiri that led them to nominate the likes of Messrs. Aiken and Mourdock, and Ms. O'Donnell. The anti-government, anti-Obama zealots control the inner workings, but sooner or later they have to present their case to a general public that disapproves of their institution's excesses, like this one, by almost 8-1. I doubt that the middle will hold; if I'm a vulnerable Republican, perhaps even just a promise from the Dems not to 'invest' in my seat in 2014 might be enough. The better question may be whether they will so damage their brand that 17-or-more seats change hands next year (recall that in the 2009-11 term, 257/435 seats were Dems).

Option 2: the ObamaCare fight is a diversion. If the GOP is crafty and realistic, they may be using the ObamaCare defunding kerfuffle as a feint to get more of what they really want – like other budget concessions. The idea here is that if you really want to conquer the City of Florence, why not attack Rome first – the Romans may be more willing to give up Florence then, than they would be if you attacked that city directly.

Here, the GOP might 'reluctantly settle' for some other goal that relieved Dems might be inclined to accept to keep the ObamaCare citadel safe. Maybe it's budgetary, but it might also be the Keystone pipeline, carbon limits on power plants, or, I don't know – maybe food for widows and orphans? Hooray – 'crisis' averted! The point is that the Dems would have to be careful here that they don't compromise away more than they must.

These manufactured 'crises' have been an effective tool for the minority Party in extracting concessions from the majority. I'm guessing that whatever fix is achieved this time will also be temporary, to maintain the ploy as a hearty perennial. But what's Your best guess? Is ObamaCare finally 'toast?' What do the Parties want here, and what's likely to happen? Fire away, fiscal cliffhangers!