The Senate's Debt-Ceiling Wild Cards

Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia cast his lot with Republicans in the debt-ceiling fight. He said he would only support raising the debt ceiling if such action were coupled with a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and the proposal by Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Claire McCaskill of Missouri to cap government spending at 20.6 percent of gross domestic product. "The truth is, raising the debt ceiling without a real budget fix would be the definition of irresponsibility," Manchin said in a statement.

His support for the GOP's nonsensical rhetoric on the debt ceiling should come as no surprise. Despite being a popular governor and running against an unimpressive, inexperienced opponent, Manchin found himself in a close contest during November's special election to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd. To win, Manchin touted a centrist platform that advocated gun rights and partial repeal of health-care reform and opposed cap-and-trade legislation. But he is up for re-election in 2012 and is constantly trying to distance himself from his party. Even his debt-ceiling position is insufficient for his tormentors at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who contend that Manchin's statement carries no weight as long as there's a Democratic majority in the Senate.

Manchin's stance shows that the biggest fight on the debt ceiling won't be in the House, where Tea Party members have a big caucus and make the most noise, but in the Senate. The structural advantage Republicans enjoy in the Senate because of the overrepresentation of rural states, which tend to be more conservative, means Democrats have to run more unorthodox candidates to win a majority. Once it became clear that the Democrats could not hold their fragile caucus together on the debt-ceiling fight, Democrats endangered in 2012 became more tempted to break rank.

"The focus on the freshman in the House is overblown," says Soren Dayton, a Republican political strategist. "I would not be surprised if the Senate was as big a sticking point." Indeed, the House historically has passed the debt-ceiling increase without fuss or fanfare, while the stumbling blocks have been in the upper chamber.

That's partly because 60 votes are needed to do anything, even stave off global financial catastrophe. With only 53 senators, Democrats would face a challenging vote even if their caucus were unified. In the House, the Republican majority will likely pass a bill that raises the debt ceiling but only on condition of spending cuts. What cuts those might be is not yet clear.

For Democrats to maintain equal leverage, they would need the Senate to pass a clean debt-ceiling increase and the White House to back the Senate. Then, when the clock starts ticking down, the two parties could hammer out a compromise roughly halfway between the House and Senate bills, or, since Democrats control two of the three relevant bodies, closer to the Democrats' position. This would be unfortunate, since in principle, raising the debt ceiling should come with no conditions. Rewarding Republican hostage-taking might encourage the GOP to use similar tactics in the future. However, as with the recent threat of a government shutdown, the risk to not making a deal would be so extreme that it would warrant some ultimate compromise.

Even this scenario, though, which liberals might grudgingly accept, won't happen. The votes for a clean debt vote simply aren't there. In fact, Democrats wouldn't even win a simple majority vote on the question. Along with Manchin, the usual suspects -- Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- have already defected, saying they will not support raising the debt ceiling without substantial spending cuts. In the last few days, Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado has come out in favor of tying the debt ceiling to future spending cuts. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the Appropriations Committee chair and a veteran deficit hawk, has also endorsed the idea. After consideration, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota issued a statement which said Congress should not play "Russian Roulette" with the economy and she would not let the nation's borrowing authority lapse. She added, however, that "this year's vote provides an opportunity to include some long-term debt reduction targets and I will work to do that." With last year's debt-ceiling vote, a group of Senators helped create the deficit commission, and Klobuchar added that she was using that as a model for what could be done this year.

The Senate's 47 Republicans, with the militaristic discipline they have displayed since Obama took office, are all in the no column as well. Thus, as of Monday, National Journal had the whip count for a clean debt vote in the Senate at 22 in favor and 50 against, with 28 Democrats still not on record. Any bill that emerges from the Senate is likely to cobble together a coalition of more mainstream Republicans and Democrats and to include some spending cuts.

Since refusing to raise the debt limit sounds like a good thing to most Americans, it's not a fight Democrats are likely to win in the messaging war, either. Explaining the consequences of failing to raise the ceiling would challenge even communicators far more skillful than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, especially as the public harbors wild misconceptions about the nature of our federal budget. (The median poll respondent thinks about 27 percent of federal spending goes to foreign aid when actually around 1 percent does.) "It's a pretty hard uphill battle for Democrats unless people see the consequences," says Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. With Democrats in the Senate defecting, the battle has already been lost.

President Barack Obama doesn't seem willing to make a strong case against spending cuts, either. With his allies in the Senate already on the defensive and in disarray, Obama has shown no desire to stand firm on any principle other than that the debt ceiling must ultimately be raised, lest we trigger a double-dip recession. As has been his strategy since the midterm elections, Obama tries to look presidential by staying out of the mess for as long as possible. "In the last few months, the White House has been positioning the president as someone who is focused on the economy and focused on the recovery," says Mike Feldman, who worked as a liaison to Congress in the Clinton White House. "[Obama] will be reasonable in a conversation about how we get there, but he is not playing politics." It seems likely that Obama will stick to articulating vague principles and throw his weight behind a compromise similar to the one he hashed out in the recent budget battle.

That's why Obama is shrewdly trying to build support for the kind of cuts he wants. Last Monday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney attacked subsidies for oil production, noting the high first-quarter profits of oil companies. When ABC's Jon Karl asked Boehner about the subsidies the same day, Boehner defended them as needed for encouraging exploration and extraction but eventually conceded that lawmakers should consider removing them. The next day, Obama jumped on the opening with a letter to congressional leaders reiterating his support for removing subsidies from the tax code. By Wednesday, though, Boehner was backpedaling, saying that cutting oil subsidies won't help increase drilling, which, he claims, will lower gasoline prices.

Obama is asking for trouble if he buys the argument that the debt ceiling must be tied to deficit-reduction measures. Once he has accepted the premise that the debt-ceiling vote is a vote that he can bargain on, the floodgates are open. Alas, keeping them shut looks impossible.

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