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Battle Lines Harden in the Game of Debt Limit Chicken

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Boehner is sticking to his 2011 rule that every dollar in debt ceiling increase be matched by a dollar of “spending cuts and reforms.”

One of them will have to blink.

In the coming debt-ceiling debate, President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner will face another test of wills over fiscal policy — and the “Boehner rule” could be a linchpin that will either set the tone for the remainder of Obama’s term, if Boehner has his way, or be a thing of the past, as the president hopes.

The weakened speaker — who survived an aborted coup attempt by insurgent Republicans last week — is clinging to the rule he coined in 2011 that every dollar in debt ceiling increase be matched by a dollar of “spending cuts and reforms.”

But Obama vows he will no longer negotiate for the debt ceiling “hostage” — even as he makes a demand of his own. He wants any new spending cuts to be accompanied by even more tax revenue than the $620 billion he secured during the fiscal cliff negotiations.

To the extent that there is wiggle room, Boehner hasn’t put a time limit on when spending cuts must take place, and most of the entitlement changes he is seeking — such as increasing the Medicare eligibility age — would have much bigger effects in future decades.

Plus, the president continues to say he wants a longer-term debt and deficit deal that would include new spending cuts, but so far he hasn’t proposed enough to comply with the spirit of the Boehner rule. But two years of on-again, off-again grand bargain talks haven’t yielded a breakthrough, and there’s no indication yet that they will finally be able to consummate such a deal anytime soon.

The White House’s Talk-to-the-Hand Strategy

Ever since re-election, the president has been flexing a tougher negotiating strategy unburdened by election worries. But even though Democrats repeatedly said they were prepared to let the nation go over the cliff if Republicans didn’t agree to their myriad demands on taxes, spending and the debt ceiling, many Democrats, and some Republicans, viewed the White House as having flinched in agreeing to a limited deal involving tax hikes.

Still, the White House is essentially daring Republicans this time to shoot the debt limit hostage, under the assumption that it would be political suicide for the GOP. After all, a default on the debt is widely predicted to result not just in a downgrading of the U.S. debt but also a worldwide recession.

Many Democrats ended up voting for the fiscal cliff deal after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed that Obama would not negotiate on the debt ceiling and that Republicans would cave.

Biden argued that business leaders would lobby Republicans and that the Wall Street Journal editorial board would also bring pressure to bear.

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