The game Boehner appears to be playing is to stall long enough that whatever he passes out of the House is presented as an either/or choice. Either the Senate agrees to it letter-for-letter or time runs out and we default. In recognition of this, Harry Reid is willing to pay a healthy ransom, albeit with a bit of a twist. Nearly half the cuts would be premised on the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, you know, have not ended. If passed into law, this wouldn’t compel the end of the conflicts abroad, but it would mean that continuing to pay for them would throw our budget out of whack. Of course, that’s no change at all. At best, it might create a little resistance to further supplemental funding of the wars.
There’s a potential problem with Boehner’s strategy, however. It’s compelling because of the stark choice he presents. Both the president and all reasonable lawmakers are willing to do almost anything to avoid a default, but a short-term default is getting close to inevitable. Bills can sail through the Senate in record time if there is unanimous consent from all 100 senators. But if even one senator objects to a procedural move, it can take up to eight days to move a piece of legislation, even if it has the support of more than 60 senators. If the Senate and House bills are not identical, it can take even longer. In other words, Boehner’s dithering has already empowered any single senator to cause a short-term default.
And if there is a default of any length, suddenly Boehner’s leverage dissipates. It’s like killing the hostage. Of course, it’s not exactly the same because, in this case, the economy will still need reviving. But the Democrats will have a lot less reason to bend all the way over to accommodate the Republicans’ demands.
I think what the White House needs to do today is promise a veto of Boehner’s bill and make it very clear that proceeding in this fashion will guarantee at last a brief default. That would have been reckless last Friday but it makes sense today because there is no time left for alternatives and a default is almost assured anyway. It’s time to get out ahead of the news cycle and lay the blame where it belongs.