Barack Obama says that arguing over an adjustment to the statutory debt ceiling is irresponsible.  Tim Geithner calls it “playing chicken” with the nation’s finances.  They are trying to convince the American public that raising the limit is mainstream and its opponents are extremists, but their latest opponent flips that argument on its head:

Sen. Mark Pryor said Wednesday he won’t vote to raise the federal government’s borrowing limit unless there’s a commitment to address the nation’s debt by cutting spending and overhauling the tax code. …

“What I’ve told anyone who will listen to me in Washington, including my leadership, is that I’m not going to vote for that unless there is a real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction,” Pryor told the group at its monthly meeting at the governor’s mansion.

What makes Pryor different?  He’s a Democrat, not a Republican, which makes the White House demonization campaign a little harder to employ.

Pryor isn’t even known as a particular firebreather or aisle-crosser, not like Joe Lieberman on the war or Zell Miller when he served in the Senate.  Furthermore, Pryor isn’t up for re-election in 2012.  Pryor doesn’t have to worry about an election until 2014.

But plenty of other Democrats are up for re-election in 2012, and in states that are going to be decidedly less friendly to Democrats.  If Pryor crosses the aisle on the debt limit, that puts pressure on people like Joe Manchin, who has to face his West Virginia constituents next year, as well as already-endangered incumbents like Claire McCaskill, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, and more.  Assuming Republicans hold firm, only two more need to cross the aisle on the debt-ceiling vote to produce a tie, and three to take the matter out of Joe Biden’s hands altogether.

The White House is going to have to agree to attach some sort of meaningful reform to the debt-ceiling hike to get it passed.  That will have to take the form of either entitlement changes that significantly reduce outlays or a massive shift in the tax code — or preferably all of the above.  Pryor just made it clear that there will be no “clean” debt-ceiling hike, and that the Obama administration will have to pay dearly to get its borrowing power extended.

Update: Perhaps sensing this, Republicans on the Hill are trying to use their leverage to the maximum:

One day after being named to a presidential task force to negotiate deficit reduction, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor fired off a stark warning to Democrats that the GOP “will not grant their request for a debt limit increase” without major spending cuts or budget process reforms.

The Virginia Republican’s missive is a clear escalation in the long-running Washington spending war, with no less than the full faith and credit of the United States hanging in the balance.

In the most recent budget battle — over a six-month spending bill — Republican leaders carefully avoided threatening to shut down the government. Now, Cantor says he’s ready to plunge the nation into default if the GOP’s demands are not met. People close to Cantor say that he hopes to make clear that small concessions from Democrats, including President Barack Obama, will not be enough to deliver the GOP on a debt increase.

Will they get those large concessions?  They did manage to get Obama to keep tax rates at the current level in December despite having control of, well, nothing at that time.  Obama could also be thinking of 2012 and the ability to run as a triangulator.  Given what happened in December and this month on the budget, Senate Democrats like Harry Reid have to be thinking that they need to cut a deal before Obama cuts their legs out from underneath them a third time.