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The Debt Limit – The Final Hostage for Republicans

If John Boehner put the Senate’s tax bill on the House floor for an up-or-down vote, it’s overwhelmingly likely it will pass. Members of Congress like Tim Scott have said as much.

Another conservative House Republican, Representative Tim Scott, a first-term congressman, said that such a measure “could pass the House,” according to Scott’s spokesman. The aide added that Scott does not support legislation raising taxes on the rich, however.

Scott’s just counting votes. You can tally up at least a dozen Republicans already willing to pass the bill in question, which just extends tax cuts on the first $250,000 of income while saying nothing on the tax rates above that level. It happens to be a tax cut on EVERY wage earner, so there really isn’t an issue with the tax pledge. And the entire 3-member Nebraska delegation, Illinois’ Bob Dold, Iowa’s Tom Latham, New York’s Chris Gibson, Oklahoma’s Tom Cole, Idaho’s Mike Simpson, and California’s Mary Bono Mack are among those on the record, to varying degrees. If you broaden it out to just the Norquist pledge, without tax rates, you’re up to 36 members.

Right now there are 192 Democrats and 241 Republicans, with two vacancies (both Democrats, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Dennis Cardoza, for different reasons). So assuming full Democratic support (which may not be so secure), you would need 25 Republicans to flip. You’re pretty close already.

What I think will actually end up more non-negotiable than the tax rates, which to a large extent are out of the hands of the Republicans as long as Democrats hold firm, is the debt limit. They correctly view that as the remaining source of leverage in the debate. The timing doesn’t match up – it won’t expire until February or March – but it represents the final hostage prospect for Republicans, and even those assumed to be as non-strategic as Louie Gohmert gets it:

“We do have leverage because early next year the debt ceiling gets reached,” he said. “And this president has got to have more ceiling. He’s got to have it moved. Sean, we have leverage. And this is a good time to say that we’re the ones promoting fairness. We’re the ones that want everyone to pay their share. You talk a good game but put it up here where your mouth is.”

“Yeah,” Hannity agreed, “but did you hear Harry Reid? He wants to tie the debt ceiling discussion to all of this mess. And he wants pretty much a blank check for Obama for the next four years.”

“Right,” said Gohmert, “and that’s our leverage.”

Republicans may be forced by circumstance to give on taxes. They know their last resort is the debt limit, and they won’t give it up. Which is crazy if you think about it. All the debt limit asks of Congress is to approve the ability to borrow to pay for appropriations Congress already authorized. It borders on insanity to give the power to the people who spent the money to demand a stop to paying the bills. But the last few years have changed the thinking on the debt limit entirely, making it more about a check on overweening government spending power. It’s not, but Republicans have convinced the public of this to some degree, so they can hold onto it as a hole card.

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David Dayen

David Dayen