The Five Biggest Flip-Flops of the Debt Ceiling Debate

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Jason Reed / Reuters

They say in politics that you know you’ve become a statesman when you’ve been on almost every side of an issue at one time or another. When Washington politicians draw lines in the sand, those lines are almost always temporary. Just look at the debt-limit negotiations. House Speaker John Boehner last week accused President Obama of “moving the goal posts.” The truth is that everyone has shifted positions as the talks have dragged on. Here are the five biggest flip-flops of the debt-ceiling debate so far:

 1. McConnell was for multiple votes before he was against them: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last month proposed holding three separate votes to raise the debt ceiling — two increments of $900 billion and one of $700 billion — over the next year. His “fall back plan” would have Obama suggest cuts and if those cuts failed to pass, Congress would hold a a vote to politically embarrass the President and Democrats for their failure to deal with the deficit. The plan, however, was panned by House Republicans, who were unwilling to take several votes on the debt ceiling and balked at the idea of giving away spending power to the President.

Fast forward five weeks. Though McConnell’s office says he supports Boehner’s plan to hold two votes on the debt ceiling, one now and one early next year, Senate Democratic and Republican sources say McConnell privately isn’t enamored with the idea of splitting it into more than one step. The issue has turned out to be a loser for Republicans and McConnell, ever the political animal, would rather see it dispensed with now.

2.  House Republicans were against multiple votes before they were for them: In response to McConnell’s back up plan, House Republican leaders in June said they were against holding more than one debt ceiling vote. Aides, on background, told reporters the freshmen were unwilling to vote on this once, let alone three times. “I don’t see how multiple votes on a debt ceiling increase can help get us to where we want to go,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing on June 21. “It is my preference that we do this thing one time.”

And yet, Speaker Boehner is crafting legislation this week that would require two debt ceiling votes, one immediate one increasing the borrowing limit by about $1 trillion and one early next year that would give negotiators time to find another $1.4 trillion in cuts to offset the $2.4 trillion debt ceiling increase needed to get past the 2012 elections. Having failed to find the full $2.4 trillion in real cuts now, House Republicans are hoping to buy more time to find the rest of the money.

3. Congressional Democratic leaders were against excluding revenues before they were for it: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have insisted all along that the deficit reduction deal must be a “balanced approach” that includes both revenue increases and spending cuts. But as the deadline has approached, they’ve dropped their push for revenues in the face of unyielding opposition from Republicans. Reid has crafted a $2.7 trillion bill with no revenues that would raise the debt ceiling in one go. Republicans complain that this is just smoke and mirrors, counting money saved from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, a Democratic aide noted, “compared to where we were a few weeks ago, this is a big concession and Republicans are still willing to take yes for an answer.”

4. House Republicans were for war funding gimmickry before they were against it: Speaking of those cuts, House Republicans gripe that $1 trillion in Reid’s proposed savings aren’t actual “cuts,” but phantom money that was never going to be spent on the two wars. “It’s like me saying, I’m not going to buy 10 Cadillacs over the next 10 years: look I saved $100,000,” said one GOP aide. But not so long ago, Republicans were touting $6.2 trillion in “cuts” included in Paul Ryan’s budget. It just so happens that $1 trillion of that came from, wait for it, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So a cut is a cut, until it’s not.

5.  Obama wins the “statesman” award: Obama has had a bunch of flip-flops in these negotiations, but for that sake of brevity, I’m putting them under one heading. First, the Administration demanded a “clean” debt ceiling increase. Now they say it has to be paired with deficit reduction. Second, they said Social Security shouldn’t be touched, and then it was on the table in the grand bargain with the rest of entitlements. Third, they said they would not accept multiple votes. But the grand bargain Obama has been talking up would have to be done in two stages.

Of course, giving in on hardened positions is part of any deal-making process. But it’s dizzying how much has changed in recent weeks of debt talks and, for now, how little progress it’s produced.