Boehner announces new offer: A short-term debt-ceiling hike -- in exchange for Obama negotiating on the shutdown

To follow-up on Ed’s post this morning, is this a cave or an escalation? Some lefties think it’s the latter, which is arguably true. The whole reason that tea partiers now favor a short-term debt ceiling hike is because they’re worried that Boehner’s trying to engineer a big cave on ObamaCare by merging shutdown negotiations with debt-ceiling negotiations. The latter is supposed to be about entitlements and deficit reduction while the former began as a battle over defunding ObamaCare. If they merge, Paul Ryan will swoop in, Boehner will drop the O-Care demands, and the GOP and Democrats will try to strike a moderate bargain on entitlement reform and new revenue. By offering to punt on the debt ceiling now, Boehner’s basically committing to holding the line on ObamaCare. The shutdown will go on, possibly for another six weeks as we approach the new debt-ceiling deadline. From that perspective, it’s an escalation. That’s why some centrist Republicans hate this idea:

If adopted at a Republican meeting Thursday, the strategy would be yet another example of Boehner accommodating the most conservative wing of the GOP conference, the one that has been driving the Obamacare fight all along. In doing so, Boehner will not have the support of all House Republicans, particularly those who would prefer that the Speaker work on a deal to quickly settle both the debt limit and the government funding issues. “Many of us want it all dealt with,” said another House Republican. “I hate the punting. I think the Obamacare angle is a fool’s errand.”

On the other hand, the reason Boehner and the leadership are eager for a short-term hike obviously isn’t that they’re spoiling for another six weeks of stalemate over the health-care law. It’s that they’re terrified of hitting the debt ceiling, both for its own sake and because of what the backlash might do to the party if it happened. They want this off the table, and if tea partiers are suddenly going to give them cover to do it, they’ll take it. That’s the “cave” theory. The signal they’re sending today is that they don’t want to play chicken with this anymore, and if they’re not willing to play chicken now, they probably won’t be willing to do it in the future.

In fact, while a short-term punt on the debt ceiling theoretically forces Boehner to hold two more nailbiting rounds of negotiations instead of one, he may be calculating that the debt ceiling will become an afterthought for conservatives once the action shifts back to the shutdown. If he squeezes O for some major ObamaCare concessions in return for re-opening the government, great — tea partiers will give him a pass on a longer-term debt limit hike afterward. If he fails to get anything meaningful for re-opening the government, oh well — tea partiers will already be so angry that he might as well pass a longer-term debt limit hike too, especially now that some of them have acknowledged the perils of hitting the ceiling. But what happens if he gets a small concession or two for ending the shutdown, just enough to convince conservatives that he needs to double down and really twist O’s arm on the debt ceiling in November? It’s impossible to believe Boehner will leave himself in that position. Which means a longer-term debt ceiling hike will have to be negotiated as part of the deal that eventually ends the shutdown. That is to say, even though a short-term hike means that negotiations technically remain separate, they can’t remain that way in practice. Boehner’s not going to go through this again in six weeks.

Crunch time now for O: Does he accept Boehner’s offer on the short-term hike or no? He offered yesterday to negotiate if the GOP raised the debt limit and ended the shutdown. Boehner’s calling his bluff by giving him half of that in return for him coming to the table. I think Obama has no choice but to take it; otherwise, if he rejects the offer and we hit the ceiling next Thursday, he’ll have a hard time explaining why Boehner’s six-week punt wasn’t good enough. Democrats won’t like it — “we’re going to be back on a crisis footing at Thanksgiving, or sometime” — but if I’m right that Boehner’s planning a cave on the debt limit anyway, then it’s worth doing. Meanwhile, the question for Boehner is whether to offer a clean short-term hike or to attach something to it like many conservatives want, be it new spending cuts or a bill that would prioritize Treasury payments in the event of default later. The more conservative the bill gets, the greater the risk that Democrats will find a reason to oppose it. And then we’re back to the “Republicans want default!” screeching that Boehner’s trying to silence.