On the debt ceiling, the GOP is a hostage taker with no demands

At Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden performed a piece of political jujitsu: He got Republicans to actually take a position on the looming debt limit showdown. Sort of. Rather than identify what spending cuts the GOP wants in return for not letting the country default on its debt, they affirmed what’s off the table.

About halfway through his remarks, Biden accused “some Republicans” of wanting to use the threat of debt as leverage to cut Social Security and Medicare. GOP members of Congress quickly rose in denunciation, jeering the president. “We all apparently agree,” Biden joked, “Social Security and Medicare is off the books now.” Republicans applauded.

With Republicans still refusing to specify what they want to see cut, it’s becoming worryingly clear that no deal is possible.

But if the nation’s two biggest social insurance programs — which make up more than one-third of the federal budget — are no longer at risk, where will Republicans trim the deficit, which they suddenly think is the No. 1 issue affecting the country? 

Defense spending? Not so fast, say many Republican congressmen. With just a five-seat majority in the House, if even a handful of members are not on board with taking the ax to the Pentagon, it’s hard to see how it happens.

Raising taxes? I kid, I kid. 

Nonmilitary discretionary spending? That’s probably the most likely target for Republicans, but not only are things like Pell Grants, K-12 education and the National Institute of Health popular, it won’t get Republicans anywhere close to the kind of major spending reforms they keep saying America needs.

With Republicans still refusing to specify what they want to see cut, it’s becoming worryingly clear that no deal is possible. Quite simply, the GOP doesn’t appear to actually want anything identifiable in return for taking the debt limit hostage.

How can the hostage-taking be resolved if the only thing Republicans agree on is taking the hostage?

It’s been a month since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and insisted that President Biden put spending cuts on the table, in return for an increase in the debt limit. But after repeated Democratic requests, Republicans have to specify a single proposed spending reduction. Actually, that’s not completely fair. Earlier this month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy called for eliminating “all the money spent on ‘wokeism.” Though as it turns out, “wokeism” is not a line item in the federal budget.

It’s as if the GOP caucus watched the movie “Speed,” saw all the scenes where the hostages were huddled, crying and scared for their lives, and decided “that right there, that’s what we want” — and skipped over the parts of the movie where the bad guy asked for something in return for letting the hostages live.

To be sure, I’m not an expert on hostage-taking, but generally, when you embark down such a path it’s good to have an end game — you know, a plan for what you want. Republicans have taken a more novel course. They’ve kidnapped their target and left the whole “list of demands” thing as TBD.

Part of the problem here is that nothing that they want in return for raising the debt limit is politically palatable. There’s a reason why Speaker McCarthy said recently that “cuts to Medicare and Social Security” are “off the table.” He knows it’s a political loser. (Though just as House Republicans ignored McCarthy’s pleas to stop heckling Biden on Tuesday, they haven’t all heeded his call to protect the country’s popular social insurance programs). Reducing Pentagon spending opens up the party to charges of soft on defense. Cuts to all but the smallest individual spending programs will inevitably upset some voters such that enough Republican members of Congress will reject them.

So why do Republicans even want this fight in the first place? It’s not as if the GOP spent the 2022 midterms talking about cutting spending. The American people certainly aren’t clamoring for smaller government. If House Republicans were demanding money for border security or gas stoves for every American this fight “might” make sense, but instead, they’re asking for something they don’t seem to care all that much about and have no plan for achieving. 

This rather unique dynamic is what makes the current situation so dangerous and uncertain. How can the hostage-taking be resolved if the only thing Republicans agree on is taking the hostage? At some point the hostage will die — or in this case, plunge the country into a self-inflicted economic catastrophe. After a month of posturing, we’re still no closer to finding out what it will take for the GOP to take debt defaults off the table. And the clock is ticking.

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