Obama Isn't Out of Danger on Debt Ceiling Debate

By E.J. Dionne - July 14, 2011

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Thus has the GOP forced its way into a sentence on which Democrats once held a monopoly: Yes, Republicans are in disarray. They're divided among those who know Boehner was right, those like McConnell who want to get out of the debt-limit mess altogether, and the troika now running Republican House strategy (Cantor, Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy) who need something to show for having brought the country to the brink.

The best way out of this impasse is, unfortunately, a political nonstarter: to work with the budget crafted by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., which shows you can get a lot of deficit reduction by mixing some spending cuts with higher taxes on the very wealthy. It's a road Obama might usefully have considered earlier.

The rational alternative is a deal with enough cuts to satisfy a majority of Republicans and enough revenue to win over a sufficient number of House Democrats to make up for tea partiers who'll never support a debt limit increase. If Boehner reasserts himself, that's probably where things will go.

Here's the worrisome scenario: Cantor takes every domestic spending cut that was discussed as part of the negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, declares that the administration has blessed them, and packages them together for a vote.

Never mind that Cantor walked out of the talks before there was serious negotiation about defense cuts and revenues, and thus no real agreement. Cantor, who needs to embarrass the Democrats and pull Obama down from the commanding heights, was shrewd to get the administration talking early about cuts in domestic spending and to put a lot of its cards on the table. He can now play those cards against Obama by forcing the president to reject reductions he had once considered when a larger agreement looked possible.

This might look like a political game. But at this stage, House Republicans can't afford to end this whole sorry episode with a whimper. The bang they are looking for could yet cause a lot of collateral damage.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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