The Republican Playbook for the Debt-Limit Fight

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At 2:30 PM on Saturday, President Obama took a victory lap at the Lincoln Memorial. He shook hands with surprised tourists, basked in their cheers, and took care to underline that Friday night’s grand bargain was the reason they were able to come pay their respects at Lincoln’s throne. “Because Congress was able to settle its differences, that’s why this place is open today and everybody’s able to enjoy their visit,” Obama them. “And that’s the kind of future cooperation I hope we have going forward.”

Permit the President this bit of spin. Ditto for Harry Reid, who took to the Senate floor the night before to herald a deal that cut $38.5 billion from the federal budget—just two months after he called Boehner’s opening bid of $32 billion “draconian” and “extreme.” Faux-victory laps may be all Democrats get for a while.

Having apparently survived one budget tussle, Congress is poised to embark on a bigger brawl—this one over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion, which the Treasury Department estimates it must do by May 16. If the early rhetoric is any indication, House Speaker John Boehner is going to rely on the same playbook he used to best Democrats this time around—leveraging his hard-liners to wrest away most of what he wants.  And it is probably going to work once again.

Back in December, Boehner told the New Yorker that convincing his cost-cutting conference to raise the debt ceiling would be the new House majority’s “first really big adult moment.” Said Boehner: “We’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

Emboldened by the budget skirmish, Boehner has changed his tune, signaling over the weekend that the debt limit vote the nation needs will be freighted with an array of concessions. “The president says I want you to send me a clean bill. Well guess what, Mr. President: Not a chance you’re going to get a clean bill,” Boehner said at a fundraiser in Connecticut Saturday night. “There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it.”

How big is really, really big? GOP freshman Senator Marco Rubio may have offered a peek at the party’s demands in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, in which he vowed, “I will vote to defeat an increase in the debt limit unless it is the last one we ever authorize and is accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” Late last week, with a deal hanging in the balance, one of the messages that emerged from the GOP camp was that some members might grudgingly sign off on the compromise in order to dispense with the skimpy billions at issue and get to work on whacking at the real money.The party views a debt-ceiling hike, the absence of which Treasury Secretary Tim Geither warns would be “catastrophic,” as a rare “leverage moment,” Eric Cantor said Sunday. They plan to seize it.

To some extent, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First Congress needs to sign off this week on the six-month pact Boehner, Reid and the White House inked before Friday night’s deadline. That’s not a foregone conclusion, though it’s highly likely. Twenty-eight Republicans and 42 Democrats voted against the one-week bridge measure that buys lawmakers time to craft the language of the six-month stopgap. An array of Republicans—from freshman deficit hawks to social conservatives like Mike Pence and Steve King to higher-office hopefuls like Michele Bachmann—have warned that the deal Boehner cut doesn’t suit them. Fifty-four Republicans voted against the second stopgap CR, and King told TIME last month that more would balk this time. That’s probably not true, but the specter of a Republican revolt plays into Boehner’s hands. As he did during the CR negotiations, the House Speaker can wield his hard-liners as a weapon to extract further concessions, shifting the goalposts while claiming he can’t sell the terms of a reasonable deal to his camp.

Democrats have another problem. As in the last battle, when the party abandoned the argument that major spending cuts were bad for the economic recovery, they’re already fighting the debt-limit brawl on Republican terms. After tasking a bipartisan commission to study deficit reduction, Obama took up few of the group’s recommendations when he released his 2012 budget. But on Sunday, White House senior advisor David Plouffe, the architect of the President’s 2008 campaign, announced that Obama would deliver a major speech on Wednesday that takes up the issue of entitlement reform.

“You’re going to have to look at Medicare and Medicaid and see what kind of savings you can get,” Plouffe said on Meet the Press. The shift is part of Obama’s tactic of positioning himself as a responsible centrist – one committed to combating the debt and deficit, but with a “scalpel,” not a “machete,” as Plouffe framed it. “We don’t disagree that we can’t continue on this fiscal path,” he said Sunday. Still, he said, “We should not be playing brinksmanship with the U.S. line of credit.”

That’s clearly what Boehner intends to do. And until Democrats stop conceding ground to the GOP, it’s a safe bet that the next battle will end the same way as the last one. Republicans will get a big chunk of what they asked for, deem it insufficient, and vow to press for more. Meanwhile, Democrats will pat each other’s backs for staving off the unthinkable. At which point their opponents will happily allow them another symbolic victory lap.

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