Late last week President Obama called Speaker Boehner to say that he wouldn’t negotiate on the debt limit.
This strikes me as an irrelevant threat. As best I can tell, no one was proposing such negotiations. Indeed after the tax increase fight last December, Speaker Boehner made a point that he would henceforth return to regular order rather than engage in ad hoc one-on-one negotiations with the President.
To increase the debt limit one needs the House and Senate to pass identical bills which raise (or suspend for a time) that limit, and then for the President to sign that bill, or at least not veto it. To pass identical bills it may be necessary for Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid to negotiate. But the President and his advisors don’t have to be part of that discussion. Speaker Boehner needs only the President’s reluctant after-the-fact acquiescence to a House-Senate agreement legislated without the President’s direct participation. To succeed Speaker Boehner does not need President Obama’s up-front and public approval.
Had the President wanted to make a threat that mattered, he would have told the Speaker “If you send me anything other than a clean debt limit bill, I’ll veto it.” That would have been a red line. He didn’t make such a threat, and that’s intentional. But the actual threat made by the President sounds tough to his allies without actually constraining his future options. The President won’t have to retreat (again) from a red line threat, because he hasn’t actually drawn a red line.
The legislative reality is that in the current House-Senate configuration, President Obama will never veto a debt limit bill.
He won’t have to. If there’s a provision that he hates enough that he would veto it if it were attached to a debt limit bill, he can simply threaten a veto, publicly and/or privately. He can tell Leader Reid, “Harry, don’t send me that bill or I’ll have to veto it.” And, if the threat is unequivocal enough, Leader Reid will then ensure that a bill containing that provision does not pass the Senate.
Alternatively, the President can use his bully pulpit to urge his allies in Congress to block any bill that contains the offending provision. The bully pulpit and the hammer of a veto threat (rather than a veto) are sufficient tools for President Obama to prevent big policy changes that he detests being attached to a debt limit extension.
The simplest example would be if the House were to pass a debt limit extension that also “defunds” ObamaCare. While President Obama could threaten a veto of such a bill, and he might, it’s likely an unnecessary threat. Acting on their own, Senate Democrats and Leader Reid would never allow such a provision to pass the Senate, thus obviating the need for a Presidential veto. In this case the veto threat matters only if it’s needed to shore up Democratic votes.
Now let’s return to the actual threat made by the President. It’s easy to imagine Speaker Boehner turning to his staff and saying, “The President just cut himself out of our debt limit negotiations with the Senate. Let’s see what we can work out with them. If the White House doesn’t like something we want attached, they can try to convince Harry to block it. We can’t big stuff like defunding or even Keystone on this bill, but there may be a small win or two that Harry would accept despite carping by the White House.”
Now it may happen that Leader Reid, either on his own or at the behest of the President, refuses to allow the Senate to consider anything other than a clean debt limit bill. The President might still get his desired result, if Leader Reid is on exactly the same page and if the Senate position prevails in the upcoming back-and-forth with the House.
But by saying “I won’t negotiate,” the President has moved himself into the background, into a position of indirect influence through his allies on the Hill. This is most likely to matter on important but second-tier issues, things which the President opposes but which Senate Democrats may be willing to accept, or may find they have no alternative but to accept because no other legislative path to enacting a debt limit increase is possible.
The key for Congressional Republicans is then to exploit whatever procedural leverage they can generate, combined with policy differences (or differences in intensity) between the President and Congressional Democrats. House Republicans can attach a modest policy change to a debt limit bill and maybe get enough Senate Democrats to swallow it. If they do, the President will have to accept it, because he can’t risk vetoing a debt limit extension over the inclusion of a second-tier policy he doesn’t like.
House & Senate Republicans did this last spring. They attached a “no budget no pay” provision to a debt limit extension. Senate Democrats accepted it, and the President signed the bill after insisting on a clean bill. As a result of this provision, the Senate passed a budget resolution for the first time in years. This was a modest policy and process win, but a win nevertheless.
The President says he refuses to negotiate on this bill. That should suit Congressional Republicans just fine. They can and should instead try to work something out with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. The President’s ineffective threat may provide an opportunity to get a small policy win or two as an attachment to a debt limit extension.