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The Confused State of the Debt Ceiling Mosh Pit

Into the Mosh Pit (image: p0ps Harlow)

With less than two weeks until President Obama’s August 2nd deadline for raising the debt ceiling, there seems to be no coalescence around a single solution. If anything, the scope of ideas being discussed seems to grow wider not narrower.

There is the $4 trillion grand bargain offered by President Obama. This deal was rejected by Speaker John Boehner but now supposedly is back in on the table in talks between the two. The Obama administration is also willing to consider a few days short term extension to make this particular deal possible.

Then there is the Gang of Six proposal that was thrown into the mix at the last minute. There is nowhere near enough time to get it written and passed by August 2nd even if it could get the support of the House. It would need, at minimum, a temporary extension for the Senate and House to work out the details, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opposes giving it this short term extension.

Also, you have the powerful Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad with his own plan that is in direct opposition to the positions taking by Obama and Reid. He is now pushing for a six month extension to give the Gang of Six’s proposal a chance.

Still, the Plan B appears to be the McConnell-Reid plan, which would give Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling. This plan may or may not also contain $1.5 trillion in cuts and a new fast-tracked bipartisan deficit reduction commission.

While at one point it appeared to be gaining support, this option is looking less likely with each passing day. You now have a large group of House conservatives aggressively whipping against the plan. Which means that to pass the McConnell-Reid plan, a huge number of House Democrats must support it. Pelosi wants the McConnell backup plan to be a mostly  “clean” debt ceiling increase with few cuts to win over House Democrats. Of course every move to make it cleaner will probably cost more votes from the conservative Republican side. Threading that needle may be impossible.

Alternatively, some House Republicans might be willing to accept the $1.5 trillion cuts Reid and McConnell are putting forward but only for an equal sized $1.5 trillion increase in the debt limit. Since that increase isn’t large enough, this would mean another debt ceiling vote just a few months before the 2012 election. That would probably make it unacceptable to the White House.

Also, while not being discussed publicly, I strongly suspect Republican Eric Cantor has a “call Obama’s bluff” bill in his back pocket.  This would be something like a last-minute, two month increase not tied to any promise of a bigger deal. It would would either prove Obama’s veto threat was hollow or give the House Republicans a way to shift the blame for the default onto Obama.

Normally I consider myself pretty good at seeing through the political theater in Washington and figuring out what the maneuvering is really about. This time though, I’m really at a loss. What is going on appears to be less like a traditional PR political dance and more like a legislative mosh pit.

I have no idea how this is going to end, but the possibility of Obama using the 14th amendment solution or minting a $1 trillion dollar coin is looking more likely.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at