How should House Democrats vote on the debt ceiling increase scheduled to lose on the House floor today? Remember, not only have Republicans scheduled this vote at least in part to give them an opportunity to vote against something that eventually at least some of them will have to vote for, but they’ve scheduled it under the supermajority-requiring suspension procedure, I guess just to make sure it doesn’t accidentally pass.

I haven’t seen much reporting on what Democrats are going to do in response. It seems to me it depends on how they believe the end game will play out. If they believe that a deal will eventually be struck without too much disruption along the way, then it makes some sense for them to all vote against the clean limit increase. After all, we know that raising the debt limit polls badly, and eventually there’s going to be a deal of some kind that they’ll want to portray as a win, so they might as well get on board the “use the debt ceiling as leverage” bandwagon, if that’s not too mixed of a metaphor.

On the other hand, if they believe that it will take a market cataclysm to get the limit raised (as Peter Orszag predicted last week), then Democrats most definitely want to pin that cataclysm on Republicans, and the best way to that is to vote yes on the clean increase today.

What about if they’re not sure? Then vote yes. If a deal is reached without too much trouble, then the initial vote is probably going to be low-salience seventeen months from now, especially for those who voted yes on the deal. If, however, disaster strikes, it may well be something that Democrats want to run on in 2012. Note however it’s a bit tricky; while Democratic House challengers have a strong interest in blaming incumbent Republicans for a market debacle, incumbent Democrats can’t exactly accuse their challengers of failing to act (although a general preference for Democrats would obviously help them, too). It may be counterintuitive to vote for something that polls really badly for purely electoral reasons, but that’s how I see it.

By the way, for those more interested in the substance of the debt limit fight, I wrote about that over at Greg’s place today.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.