On debt ceiling, a simple request: ‘A clean bill’

ON DEBT CEILING, A SIMPLE REQUEST: ‘A CLEAN BILL’…. On Fox News this morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he’s prepared to play a dangerous game with the federal debt limit — he’ll help block an extension without “guaranteed steps” on unspecified cuts to public investments.

It is, in other words, another hostage strategy. Last week, the message was, “Give us what we want or we’ll shut down the government.” Going forward, the new message is, “Give us what we want or we’ll wreak havoc on the global economy and trash the full faith and credit of the United States government.”

The details of the ransom note apparently haven’t been written yet, but we’re getting clues.

The down-to-the-wire partisan struggle over cuts to this year’s federal budget has intensified concern in Washington, on Wall Street and among economists about the more consequential clash coming over increasing the government’s borrowing limit.

Congressional Republicans are vowing that before they will agree to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling — a step that will become necessary in as little as five weeks — President Obama and Senate Democrats will have to agree to far deeper spending cuts for next year and beyond than those contained in the six-month budget deal agreed to late Friday night that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown.

Republicans have also signaled that they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling.

The stakes of the Republicans’ hostage strategy are significantly higher than the budget fight, at least insofar as the consequences would be more severe. Had the GOP shut down the government, it would have been awful for the economy; if the GOP blocks an extension of the debt ceiling, the results could prove catastrophic. As the NYT noted, “The repercussions in that event would be as much economic as political, rippling from the bond market into the lives of ordinary citizens through higher interest rates and financial uncertainty of the sort that the economy is only now overcoming.” The likelihood of “provoking another credit crisis like that in 2008” is very real.

It’s exactly why Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently warned congressional Republicans not to “play around with” this, adding that lawmakers shouldn’t view the debt ceiling as a “bargaining chip.”

Republicans freely admit they’re doing it anyway. Indeed, they’ve been rather shameless about it.

It seems to me President Obama’s message should be pretty straightforward: “To prevent a crisis, I expect a clean bill.”

This isn’t complicated. Democrats and Republicans have, routinely, raised the debt limit many times. Neither party has ever held it hostage, or made sweeping demands. Economists, government officials, and even financial industry leaders have all told Republicans to reject the political games and do what’s right.

What’s more, as we discussed yesterday, even Republicans know how this has to turn out. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently said failing to raise the debt limit “would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said failure to raise the debt limit would lead to “financial collapse and calamity throughout the world.”

Democrats and Republicans can have a larger debate about entitlements and debt reduction in the fight over the next fiscal year budget. But there’s not enough time for that to occur before we hit the debt ceiling.

Just pass a clean bill, prevent a calamity, and get ready for the larger budget fight.