What happened
President Obama and the Republican House this week ratcheted up their confrontational rhetoric on the government’s borrowing limit, raising the real possibility that the U.S. government will go into default in just a few weeks. The government is expected to reach the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling in late February or early March. If Congress does not authorize the federal government to borrow more money before then, it could run out of available funds and halt payments to creditors, sending shock waves through stock markets, damaging U.S. credit ratings, and leaving Social Security checks unsent. Republicans say they will not raise the debt ceiling unless Obama agrees to a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar the ceiling is raised—which will likely be $1 trillion. But the president this week insisted that while he’s open to a bargain on a “balanced” new deficit-reduction package, he would refuse to negotiate with Republicans if they use the debt ceiling as leverage. “They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” Obama said. 

Obama ruled out several widely discussed options for unilaterally raising the debt ceiling without Congress’s approval. That sets the stage for a battle of wills with Republicans. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told Politico.com that her party is tired of kicking the deficit-reduction can down the road. “I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we’re serious,” she said. 

What the editorials said
So once again we creep closer to default, said Bloomberg.com, thanks to a Republican Party whose hostage-taking has “repeatedly paralyzed the U.S. and threatened to derail the economy.” The last standoff, in August 2011, forced credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. government’s credit rating. How much damage to this nation are Republicans willing to do? The GOP seems “caught in a downward spiral,” said USA Today. The more voters punish them for their stubborn obstructionism, the worse it gets. “This is no way to run a party.”

But it’s the Democrats who are truly irresponsible here, said NationalReview.com.Despite a federal deficit that’s climbed to $1 trillion a year, they’re content to borrow and spend indefinitely, and are using the debt-ceiling fight “to distract the press and the public from the reality of our fiscal crisis.” Now that we’ve once again run out of borrowed money, it’s time to agree to a plan that gets government spending under control.

What the columnists said
Forcing the U.S. government to default would backfire on Republicans, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. The president inevitably has the upper hand in these power struggles, as Newt Gingrich found out the hard way in the 1995 government shutdown. If congressional Republicans elect to cause an economic crisis, the GOP will be so politically damaged that it will only lead to “a stronger Democratic party, a more powerful liberalism, and a more expansive state.” 

Obama is well aware of that, which is why he’s “finally getting tough,” said Jacob Weisberg in Slate.com. He’s been “shorn of his fantasies of compromise,” and prefers to challenge House Speaker John Boehner rather than “beat his head against a wall of wing-nut opposition.” Having won a victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations, the president is betting that the “enfeebled Boehner and his perfervid rank-and-file” will blink first.

It’s more likely that Obama will blink first, said Daniel Foster in NationalReview.com. He knows “there is a faction of the House Republican caucus with an appetite—nay, a bloodlust—for a government shutdown.” If Boehner uses the “foamy-mouthed rottweiler” of the hard-liners to make Obama sweat, some spending cuts are likely to wind up on the negotiating table. Don’t bet the country on it, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. By repeatedly ruling out negotiations, Obama has left himself “no room to backslide,” while House conservatives truly believe this is their last chance “to save America from Greek-Kenyan socialist hell.” For two years, Obama and the Republicans have been playing a dangerous game of chicken. This time it may end in a head-on collision.