Let’s see what John Boehner had to say about the debt limit on Fox News yesterday:

WALLACE: I want to — I know you’re not threatening to default. But do you agree with administration officials and other economists that defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States would be a financial disaster?

BOEHNER: That would be a financial disaster not only for our country, but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs. You can’t create jobs if you default on the federal debt.

Listen, there has been a spending spree going on in Washington these last couple of years that is beyond control, and if the president is going to ask us to increase the debt limit, then he’s going to have to be willing to cut up the credit cards. We’ve got to work together by listening to the American people and reducing these obligations that we have.

WALLACE: So, defaulting on the full faith and credit is unacceptable to you?

BOEHNER: I don’t think — I don’t think it’s a question that is even on the table.

What we can say here is that, if the Obama Administration reaches an agreement with Republicans on spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt limit, it will have been their intention to do so all along. Boehner is practically begging with Chris Wallace here not to be blamed in the event of a default or near-default event. It wouldn’t even take much demagoguery to get Boehner to buckle and just increase the debt limit, perhaps a small amount as they gird themselves for a future debate. He doesn’t want default draped over him as the defining characteristic of his Speakership. He doesn’t want to go down the way Gingrich went down on the government shutdown.

So a spending deal clearly doesn’t need to happen. There’s a small faction on the right which wants to force debt payments into the front of the line ahead of Social Security checks, but there’s no way that’s passing (and continuing to push that would be a disaster for Republicans). So the decision on spending is entirely up to the White House, as I’d suspect enough Democrats would go along with his lead. Which makes this quote so revealing:

Republicans don’t have any choice but to raise the debt ceiling, even if they win the kinds of spending cuts they’ve sought, a top White House adviser said Saturday.

Outgoing White House senior adviser David Axelrod said that even if President Obama were to agree to every cut the GOP-led House has proposed, it wouldn’t change the fact that lawmakers would have to raise the debt ceiling.

“Let’s be clear: If we made every cut – and they haven’t been specific – but the size of cuts the Republicans are talking about, you’d forestall the need to lift the debt ceiling by 15 days,” Axelrod told Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital” in an episode to air over the weekend.

Now, you can read that as “Republicans don’t understand math” or you can see that as a signal, that some spending cuts are on the table in the near term. Combine this with Bill Daley’s suggestion that “everyone agrees” on the need for spending cuts beyond non-security discretionary freezes, and what emerges is a picture of the Obama Administration driving the discussion on spending cuts, and making bargains that they don’t really need to make.

In this context, I see a proposed deficit commission from the Congressional Black Caucus as a good step. Because clearly we’re on the road to austerity, so we might as well have an alternative coming from Congress that makes those cuts to the actual sources of waste and corporate welfare in the government.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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