Credit-rating threat could help GOP in debt-ceiling showdown

No question, the early reviews on the fiscal-cliff deal have not been good for Republicans.
President Obama “Rick-rolled” the GOP, forcing members to back a big tax hike for the first time in 20 years, to add nearly $4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade and to vote against their own Speaker’s proposal to address the crisis.
There were some things to like. The Bush tax cuts finally were made permanent for all who earn less than $400,000, the Alternative Minimum Tax was reformed, and the structure of the deal provides three more opportunities for Republicans to push for spending cuts.

But perhaps the biggest story from the fiscal-cliff negotiations has only now begun to emerge. The credit rating agencies have decided this president is unserious about addressing America’s fiscal problems, and they have begun to send warnings they plan to respond. According to Moody’s: “[T]he U.S.'s credit rating could be affected ‘negatively’ if Washington fails to take further steps to rein in the deficit.”
The first of the three upcoming battles is over whether to raise the debt ceiling, now at about $16.4 trillion. The president says he won’t negotiate over this. House Republicans should say, “Good, then figure out how to make it work without it being raised.”
This will create a conversation on another topic the president seems unwilling to address: entitlement spending. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other entitlements now account for more than 60 percent of federal spending. With 10,000 people retiring every day, these programs — compounded by ObamaCare — will crowd out all other federal spending in less than 50 years.
The CBO soberly says, “[T]he U.S. cannot sustain the federal spending programs that are now in place with the federal taxes (as a share of GDP) that it has been accustomed to paying.” Republicans retained control of the House after voting for the Ryan budget, which means not just the CBO but normal Americans have begun to understand the status quo is untenable. Yet the president says not a penny can be cut, not a rule changed to address this imbalance.
Republicans can win on this. They can paint President Obama as the obstructionist who refuses to budge while Rome burns. They can come off as the reasonable party in this. But to do so, they must bring sound ideas to the table for true structural entitlement reform, present a united front and explain the problem in language Americans can understand.
They will have a newly invigorated Speaker at the front of the battle lines. John Boehner has said he no longer will negotiate one on one with the president, and he knows his colleagues — who were not enthusiastic about returning him to office after the fiscal-cliff debacle — will not tolerate a deal like the last one.
Also, Boehner knows if they can do it — if they can turn the tide against excessive entitlement spending — it will change the entire equation of power in Washington. If not, it’s going to be a long four years, and he may not be Speaker for all of them.

Ford O'Connell is a Republican strategist, conservative activist and political analyst. A frequent commentator on Fox News, CNN and other broadcast media, he worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign.

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