Raising 
the stakes

Bring it on.

This week’s Washington shocker was House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) announcement that he would once again only agree to raise the debt ceiling with a greater sum in spending cuts. Though this moment isn’t likely to arrive until after the election in November, and the politics of it will no doubt be determined by what happens on election night, it was reason nonetheless for a four-alarm political freak-out.

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Democrats responded with skepticism and outrage as Republicans sought to get out in front of a looming legislative nightmare scheduled for the post-election lame-duck session, during which reelected and defeated lawmakers, and possibly a defeated president, will be forced to address the $8 trillion in expiring tax cuts and spending cuts that take effect on New Year’s Day of 2013. The debt ceiling is now estimated to be reached at approximately the same time. At a debt summit sponsored by Peter G. Peterson on Tuesday, Boehner said the fiscal cliff could be avoided but that work would need to begin right away. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner responded by warning Boehner — once again — not to put at risk the nation’s credit rating and the entire economy, saying, “We hope they do it this time without the drama and the pain and the damage they caused the country last July.” Fat chance. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it “pretty galling for Speaker Boehner to be laying down demands for another debt-ceiling agreement when he won’t even abide by the last one.” Indeed, Republicans — including Boehner — voted for the debt deal in August of 2011 that included steep domestic and military cuts to be “triggered” if all the decisions punted to 12 supercommittee members were punted by them as well. The tough decisions were, to no one’s surprise, never made. To boot, the trigger was phony; everyone who voted on it knew it could be undone before the cuts kicked in on Jan. 1, 2013. Now Republicans are working to undo the triggered cuts to the military with new domestic program cuts. 

Republicans are sure this new push — designed, like presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s similar debt message, to move the conversation off of gay marriage and back onto an issue that won the GOP a historic majority in the midterm elections in 2010 — will help them. It might boomerang, as increased pressure from the party’s more conservative, Tea Party-backed members could heighten the chances of a government shutdown before Election Day (spending bills must be signed by President Obama at the end of the current fiscal year). It might not lead exactly where either party expects, but the sooner the next ugly battle begins, the better — and the political consequences be damned. It isn’t just the taxpayers who doubt the two parties can come together to stave off a fiscal apocalypse in the few weeks between Election Day and Christmas; companies across the country are cutting costs, planning layoffs, holding off on hiring — all due to the unprecedented uncertainty Congress has created through gridlock.

“I feel like we’re really in uncharted waters,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, told The Washington Post this week. “On the one hand, you say, ‘We’re a functioning country. Somehow, we’re going to work this out.’ But then you ask, ‘What’s the scenario for a potential solution?’ And you can’t come up with anything that you can see actually passing Congress.”

With more than five months on their hands, both parties need to get going. As Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) noted earlier this week, what else is there to do ? “We’re not exactly consumed by a waiting legislative agenda,” Snowe told The Hill’s Bernie Becker. “And we haven’t been for some time.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.