Is the GOP already giving up on the next debt-ceiling standoff?

Politico says yes, with good reason. The shining lesson of the debt-ceiling brinksmanship we’ve all watched over the past two and a half years is that Boehner and McConnell, for prudent reasons, simply will not allow the country to experience a technical default. The risk to the economy and to the GOP’s political hopes is too great. If that’s how they’ve approached the previous standoffs then of course they’re going to take the same approach in an election year when the party’s poised to recapture the Senate. The motto for Republican members of Congress in 2014 is “no sudden moves” — or at least it should be. As Bill Kristol noted the other day, there’s still a chance for a seriously self-sabotaging move on immigration.

Question, though. If the game plan next month is to fold and then sit back while ObamaCare’s foibles destroy the Democrats’ chances in November, why was Paul Ryan telling people in December after the much-derided budget deal to stay tuned for the GOP’s debt-ceiling demands? Why did Mitch McConnell say just three days ago that a clean debt-ceiling hike with no concessions for the GOP would be “irresponsible”? That’s an odd way to prepare your base for a letdown.

The most senior figures in the House Republican Conference are privately acknowledging that they will almost certainly have to pass what’s called a clean debt ceiling increase in the next few months, abandoning the central fight that has defined their three-year majority.

The reason for the shift in dynamics in this fight is clear. Congress has raised the debt limit twice in a row without drastic policy concessions from President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, essentially ceding ground to Democrats. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are again ruling out negotiations over the nation’s borrowing limit, which would leave Republicans fighting against a unified Democratic front. It’s a tricky situation for the GOP in an election year: They would have to pass a clean debt limit bill or risk default…

“I’ve been saying publicly that once we voted for the budget, you knew that you were going to get a clean debt ceiling,” said conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), referring to the recently passed budget deal that he voted against. “The time to fight for spending cuts is when you’re talking about spending, not at debt ceiling time. So when people caved on the budget and caved on the [Ryan-Murray] agreement, it’s really hard for them to come back and say, ‘We don’t want to increase the debt ceiling’ when they’ve already voted for something that increases the debt.”

According to Politico, “At least a dozen Republican aides and lawmakers are highly skeptical they will be able to craft something that will attract the support of 217 GOP lawmakers.” Really? I can think of something that would, or should, get 217 Republican votes: Repeal the “risk corridor,” i.e. bailout, provisions for insurers in ObamaCare. Krauthammer’s been pushing that for weeks, in fact, as the ultimate poison pill for Obama and vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate. If O and Harry Reid want a debt-ceiling hike, all they have to do is agree not to shovel taxpayer money at an industry that’s struggling to cope with the adverse selection chaos engineered by Obama’s big policy “achievement.” If I were Boehner, I’d call a presser today and announce that as my one and only demand, just to maximize the time for Republicans to push the “do Democrats support another bailout or don’t they?” message in the media before we hit the debt limit. Obama knows what it would mean for the insurance industry potentially if the risk corridor life raft is suddenly towed away, so he’ll force Reid to bottle the idea up. But that’s okay; the point here isn’t to force Reid to pass it, which the GOP can’t do, but merely to have that lone reasonable demand dangling out there in the public eye to show voters where the Democrats’ priorities are. If Boehner has to pass a clean debt hike at the eleventh hour, fine, but at least extract a pound of political flesh for it first. It’s a no-brainer as far as I can see. Why aren’t they doing it already?