Debt-Ceiling Melodrama

As early as Wednesday the House plans to vote to suspend the looming debt ceiling temporarily, allowing the Treasury Department to continue paying immediate obligations through May 19. The critics are right that this is a retreat from Speaker John Boehner's 2011 "rule" that that the GOP will only raise the debt limit by as much as Mr. Obama agrees to cut future spending.

January 22, 2013, 7:17 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting different results, Republicans may be learning from political shock therapy. Speaker John Boehner's decision to postpone a debt-ceiling showdown is best understood as the GOP's attempt to break a cycle of manufactured crises that have worked to President Obama's advantage.

As early as Wednesday the House plans to vote to suspend the looming debt ceiling temporarily, allowing the Treasury Department to continue paying immediate obligations through May 19. The goal is to deny Mr. Obama his (false) talking points about national "default," while increasing GOP leverage in the spending debates.

Such strategic thinking isn't sitting well with some conservatives who seem to enjoy marching into the fixed bayonets. And then doing it again, and again. The critics are right that this is a retreat from Mr. Boehner's 2011 "rule" that the GOP will only raise the debt limit by as much as Mr. Obama agrees to cut future spending over 10 years. But Mr. Obama isn't going to agree to that, and the GOP hasn't done nearly enough to prepare the public for such a showdown.

Mr. Boehner's tactical retreat buys some time and puts more spending pressure on Democrats. The automatic sequester cuts that Congress agreed to in 2012 will arrive on March 1, causing an immediate cut of $69 billion in discretionary spending, to $974 billion. While this is modest in a nearly $4 trillion federal budget, and largely spares entitlements, Democrats and their spending tongs are already shouting in protest. Which is the political point.

The GOP's plan is to make clear that the only way for Democrats to forestall these cuts is to agree to longer-term and more sensible spending reforms. Meanwhile, the government's ability to fund itself (the "continuing resolution") runs out on March 27. Mr. Obama and his party can either engage with the GOP on serious debt talks or contemplate a series of continuing resolutions that lock in sequester spending levels through the next election.

Mr. Boehner is also adorning this debt-ceiling delay with legislative language that requires the House and Senate to pass budget outlines, or see their pay withheld. This is a shot at Harry Reid's Senate, which has not passed a budget in four years. The 27th Amendment bars a sitting Congress from varying its own compensation, so the House can at most withhold Members' pay until the end of the Congressional session—January 2015.

This is a political gimmick to be sure, and the Senate's many millionaires (Jay Rockefeller, Dianne Feinstein) may not care. But anything that forces Senate Democrats to begin showing their political priorities has its virtues.

The White House said on Tuesday that it will go along with the debt-ceiling delay if it passes. The Administration realized it could hardly complain it is being given the debt reprieve it asked for, and Mr. Reid recognized the embarrassment of blocking a proposal that requires him to do his budget job.

The bigger test for Republicans will come when the sequester kicks in and begins to squeeze defense. We agree this will do genuine harm, but at least the sequester will show that Washington can cut some spending. And there's zero chance Mr. Obama will concede on anything unless his own coalition feels real pain. As Commander in Chief, Mr. Obama also has a duty to protect national security.

Mr. Obama's refusal to bargain in good faith means we will have an extended war over spending for many months. Sometimes a tactical retreat is the smart play.

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