Congress is about to spar over the debt ceiling again... really.
Though Republicans will likely offer a more realistic ransom list than the one they floated in October — which read as if the party believed Mitt Romney had won the election — the GOP, spurred on by its win on Paul Ryan and Patty Murray's budget deal, has a newfound confidence in pursuing at least some degree of brinksmanship when it comes time to raise the nation's borrowing limit.
On his post-budget agreement victory lap this weekend, Ryan signaled in an appearance on Fox News Sunday that the GOP would tie some as-yet-unspecified demands to the debt ceiling.
"We as a caucus, along with our Senate counterparts, are going to meet and discuss what it is we want to get out of the debt limit," Ryan said. "We don't want nothing out of this debt limit. We're going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight."
What Republicans want will differ from what they can accomplish. Remember, the GOP had fever dreams about completely repealing ObamaCare in the last debt ceiling fight but, having come in with such a preposterously high first offer, walked away with basically nothing.
With the budget deal in hand though, Ryan has now given Republicans something of a blueprint for compromising with Democrats, one they could follow again to secure another round of deficit reduction. Though admittedly small, the budget deal would reinstate some defense spending and pare the deficit over time without raising taxes — a win, in broad terms, for the GOP. Given that success, Ryan's "recent counsel to GOP lawmakers," the Wall Street Journal noted, "is to shoot for targeted demands that Democrats might be willing to accept."
"If he's involved in the debt ceiling negotiation," which he almost certainly will be, the paper added, "he could try to shape a more nuanced proposal."
If Republicans were to pursue only modest debt ceiling goals as Ryan did on the budget — no repeal fantasies, no provisions to roll back contraception coverage nor to approve the Keystone pipeline — they would have a much better case to flip the script and paint Democrats, should they refuse to negotiate, as the intransigent "party of no."
The budget deal will be particularly salient as a blueprint if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the party's more moderate members keep pushing back against Tea Party idealism in favor of a more pragmatic approach to legislating. Ryan seemed to endorse that approach Sunday in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, saying, "Government has to function."
"We can't take on the tough decision unless we can learn to use the word 'compromise,'" he added.
Then again, "compromise" is still a four letter word to many conservatives.
Ryan said last year that he thought the debt ceiling gave Republicans more leverage to negotiate, and this time, the party could attempt to use that leverage without the popularity-crushing shutdown weighing them down.
In that light, Republicans could try to chip away at ObamaCare more in the next debt ceiling debate. After all, part of the GOP's goal in quickly passing a budget deal is to keep the focus in Washington on the fledgling health care law.
Still, President Obama has said flatly that he won't negotiate on the debt ceiling. If he holds firm, it's possible that the latest threats may be a lot of noise that builds up to no more than a grand fizzle come next year.
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