House Republicans Cave on Debt Ceiling Brinkmanship

In a strategic withdrawal, House Republicans announce plans to pass a short-term debt-limit extension

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

House Speaker John Boehner, right, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor speak to the media on the "fiscal cliff" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 21, 2012.

House Republicans plan to introduce legislation next week that would increase the nation’s borrowing authority for three months, a tactical retreat that postpones a looming showdown over whether the party is prepared to hike the U.S. debt ceiling.

The measure is contingent on both the House and Senate’s ability to adopt a budget within the next 90 days, a feat that the Senate hasn’t managed to pull off in nearly four years. Failure to do so in either chamber of Congress would strip representatives of their pay.

“We must pay our bills and responsibly budget for our future. Next week, we will authorize a three month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement. “Furthermore, if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, Members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay.¬†While the House¬†that might have plunged the country into default in the coming weeks.”

The decision is a sharp departure from House Republicans’ repeated insistence that any increase in the U.S. debt limit would require commensurate spending cuts. The strategic shift signals a growing realization that another round of brinkmanship over the country’s full faith and credit would be politically poisonous for a party whose approval ratings have plummeted. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday, 49% of respondents said they had a negative view of the GOP, compared to 26% who had a positive view — the party’s worst ratio in that poll since 2008. The survey also showed that a plurality of the public is poised to blame the GOP if a new round of debt-limit negotiations go awry.

Confronted with this grim reality during a conference retreat this week at a tony resort in Williamsburg, Va., House Republicans have apparently decided to tackle the coming cascade of fiscal battles in a different order. Current borrowing limits and the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff deal required the two parties to reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling sometime between mid-February and early March, depending on how long the Treasury Department can use “extraordinary measures” to stretch its resources. Next Congress will need resolve the sequester, a package of across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs, before it takes effect March 1. Finally, Democrats and Republicans must pass a resolution to fund the government beyond March 27, when it is scheduled to run out of money.

In the wake of a fiscal cliff deal that raised taxes for the first time in a generation, many House Republicans have said that the party needs to take a strong stand to cut spending, even if it meant shutting down the government — or forcing a default — and weathering the ensuing blowback from voters. A large bloc of conservatives have said they were willing to go to the mat over the debt limit, the first of the three scheduled fights — and also the one that would wreak the most havoc on the economy. But powerful conservative outside groups, corporate executives and Republican strategists have warned that a default would be disastrous, both for the U.S. and the GOP brand. Republicans may yet be willing to dig in their heels over the sequester or force a government shutdown. For the GOP, kicking the debt limit to the back of the line of budget crises has three major advantages: it puts the Senate on the defensive, gives members cover by tying the measure to a long-sought passage of a budget, and lets them make their stand on safer political ground.

Despite Cantor’s confidence that the measure will pass, there is, of course, no guarantee that his colleagues won’t blow up the agreement.