President Obama’s second-term ambitions include beefing up guns laws, reforming the country’s immigration system and curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but he’s stuck at least for now with House of Representatives controlled by Republicans who remain hostile to his agenda — which is why the upcoming fight over increasing the country’s borrowing authority is so crucial.
If Obama successfully defuses a debt ceiling standoff, which is looking increasingly likely, he will at least provide himself and Congress some running room to debate other major issues. But if he fails — if he accedes to GOP demands — it will reinvigorate the conservative wing of the GOP and encourage them to pursue the same do-or-die strategy every time must-pass legislation is on the docket. Obama’s second term will become bogged down in battles over basic government functions, squeezing out gun, immigration, and energy legislation.
Despite Obama’s re-election, Republicans comfortably held their House majority, and have gerrymandered districts in key states well enough that they stand a strong chance of holding it once more in 2014. That means they’ve drawn a lot of dark-red districts, represented by conservative members who are want to continue to engage in brinksmanship over the debt limit unless Obama agrees to make deep spending cuts.
Something will have to give. Obama’s goal is to break the GOP’s enthusiasm for using crises to achieve their legislative goals, and restore order to governing. As Obama put it this week, Republicans “will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.”
Signs have emerged in the last week that some Republicans, including key House leaders, see their threats as unsustainable. Whether that yields more governance and less crisis management will be an early indication of whether Obama’s second term will be successful.
Speaker John Boehner’s best hope is that Obama’s not as steeled as he claims to be. If Obama refuses to bargain over the debt limit, and sticks to his insistence that the “sequester” be replaced with an equal mix of spending cuts and tax revenues, Boehner will have to decide whether to hive off the conservative wing of his party and pass legislation relying more on Democratic than Republican votes; or trigger the economically damaging consequences of refusing to compromise. Still, rank-and-file Republicans have a renewed appetite for confrontation after swallowing $620 billion in tax increases in order to resolve the fiscal cliff.
The Treasury will run out of borrowing authority between mid-February and early March. In the meantime, the White House isn’t slowing down its push for other priorities. As the White House sees it, the GOP’s credibility and clout are already compromised and will be further damaged if they play games with the debt ceiling. In his Monday press conference, Obama aggressively reinforced his position and his intention to force Republicans to reckon with his re-election.
“It seems as though what is motivating this from the House Republicans is more than debt reduction. They have a vision about what government should and should not do,” Obama said. “They are suspicious about government policy commitments to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they grow older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research. They have a particular view about what government should do and should be.”
“That deal,” said the president, “was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.