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Republicans Only Have As Much Leverage As Obama Gives Them

“House Republicans have no idea how they’re going to lift the debt ceiling this fall,” Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan report in Politico. But, they make clear, there’s plenty of brainstorming going on among top GOP brass on what to ask for—in exchange for funding the government to avoid a shutdown, lifting the debt ceiling, and raising spending from sequester levels.

Acting as though they are trying to craft a win-win situation for themselves and Democrats, Republicans are creating a laundry list of expectations: “The more issues thrown in the same debate, the better—as they create more leverage points, Republicans say. Obama could say he didn’t negotiate over the debt ceiling, but rather the sequester, and Republicans can brag about more concessions from the president.”

And yet, it is not at all clear that Republicans have much leverage. After spending the back half of 2012 pretending to be unperturbed by sequester cuts to the Pentagon, Republicans have spent the summer writing defense-related appropriations bills that violate the debt-ceiling—making it obvious that they can’t stomach the sequester cuts any more than Democrats. Blame for a government shutdown would fall squarely on their shoulders, particularly if they insist, as it looks like they might, on the fantasy tactic of linking government funding to the repeal of Obamacare. And there is already a way for Obama to boast that he didn’t negotiate over the debt ceiling; he can refuse to negotiate over the debt ceiling.

In short, in a fall that promises lots of financial brinksmanship, Republicans really only have leverage insofar as Obama gives it to them. This is especially true on the question of lifting the debt ceiling—which Congress has to do in order to allow the president to execute the spending bills that Congress itself authorized. It’s a perfunctory cap that shouldn’t exist, and yet failing to lift it would send the American government into default, to enormous detriment to the economy. Obama has said that he will refuse to talk about the debt ceiling, which needs lifting by sometime in October, in concert with the other impending financial showdowns. The GOP defies him at their, and the economy’s, peril.

It’s a no-brainer, if only Obama hadn’t made substantial concessions in return for raising the debt ceiling back in 2011. His track record of oversensitivity to Republicans’ blustering demands is one of the biggest wild cards in the coming negotiations (or non-negotiations). Time and again, the administration has blinked in high-stakes negotiations—when the Bush tax cuts were expiring, in 2011 when the debt ceiling needed raising, and in negotiations, in 2012, over the fiscal cliff. This spring, when sequester cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to eat into Congressional home visits, the White House hastily agreed to undo that portion of the cuts—rather than hold steady until Republicans came to the negotiating table, where more sequester cuts might have been reversed.

The administration and Senate Democrats are signalling that this time will be different. Whether that proves true will turn as much on GOP petulance as it will on the White House’s resolve to hold fast in the face of it.

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.