House GOP Postpones Debt-Limit Fight–For Now

Republicans' short-term suspension of the debt limit is a tactical retreat, but it sets up another budget showdown very soon.

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House Speaker John Boehner and members of the House Republican leadership speak to the media shorty after the House passed a bill that would suspend the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 23, 2013.

The House on Wednesday passed a Republican plan to suspend the U.S. borrowing limit until mid-May, postponing a fiscal standoff that could have torpedoed the U.S. economy and further damaged the GOP‘s brand.

The bill passed, 285-144, with the support of the vast majority of Republicans and several dozen Democrats. Senate Democrats mocked the legislation but signaled they would pass it, and the White House issued a statement saying it “would not oppose” the measure, paving the way for a stopgap solution that lifts the burden of another debt-ceiling crisis until May 19.

Even by the surrealist standards of the House of Representatives, the measure is kooky. First, it suspends the debt-limit rather than raises it — a semantic distinction that allows members to assure pitchfork-wielding constituents that they didn’t vote for more debt, but raises the question of why Congress doesn’t simply permanently jettison an arcane provision that has twice threatened the U.S. with default in two years. Second, it requires both houses of Congress to pass a budget, a feat the Senate hasn’t managed in nearly four years. If either chamber fails to meet that challenge by April 15, members don’t get paid. That stipulation may be an effective sop to a public that sees congressmen as coddled fat cats, but it also may run afoul of the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

The move was a sharp tactical retreat by House Republicans, who had sworn to extract matching spending cuts for every dollar the U.S. borrowing authority is raised. This debt-limit suspension isn’t contingent on spending cuts, or the adoption of a balanced-budget amendment, or any of the other priorities the House GOP has sought to tether to Congress’s paying the bills it has racked up. But for those hoping to avoid a reprisal of the budget brinkmanship that hobbled the economy in the summer of 2011, don’t get too excited.

The House GOP remains determined to slash the size of government at some point during the three fiscal fights — over the debt ceiling, the sequester, and the resolution to fund the government for 2013 — scheduled this spring. They were warned by Wall Street leaders, GOP pollsters and strategists, powerful conservative outside groups, and their own leadership that the debt ceiling was the worst hill to die on. Even Club for Growth boss Chris Chocola, a guy who monitors conservative pure-bloodedness like one of Voldemort’s minions, didn’t oppose the Republican retreat on the issue. The politics were too treacherous. So the GOP re-ordered the budget battles to place the most perilous one at the end.

Which means House Republicans are likely to force a showdown over the sequester — a set of automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense programs, which economists say would wallop the economy if enacted on March 1 — or their threat to shut the government when it runs out of funding on March 27. Unlike on the debt limit, Republicans don’t seem skittish about going to the mat on these issues. They see the national debt as a crisis, and they plan to solve it by creating new crises.”We want to try, in installments, to get a down payment, year by year, on preventing a debt crisis, on balancing the budget and getting this debt under control,” Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan explained to reporters at a breakfast Wednesday morning hosted by the Wall Street Journal. “The reason we feel compelled to do this is because if we don’t, we will have a serious problem in this country.”

Agreements will be hard to forge with Democrats, however. The GOP wants spending cuts, but they oppose any deal that includes new revenues. And so while the GOP may have defused its own debt-limit time bomb, the havoc of sequestration or a government shutdown remain in the offing. Ryan, who helped sell the debt-limit suspension to his colleagues, was asked by TIME’s Michael Duffy on Wednesday why threatening to shut the government was a viable point of leverage for a House GOP whose approval ratings are already anemic. Ryan responded: “We don’t have much to lose, do we?”

Maybe they don’t. But a lot of other people do.