I’ve called the game surrounding the debt ceiling, “peak crazy.” And now, according to the WaPo, members of the Sensible Party are joining stalwarts from the Very Silly Party in the fun.*

A growing number of Democrats are threatening to defy the White House over the national debt, joining Republican calls for deficit cuts as a requirement for consenting to lift the country’s borrowing limit.

The tension is the latest illustration of how the tea-party-infused GOP is driving the debate in Washington over federal spending.

Perhaps, but I think it’s also an illustration of how destructive a small handful of conservative Dems wielding outsized influence over our policy debates continue to be. (I wrote about that at more length here.)

Who are these confused Democrats?

The push-back has come in recent days from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a freshman who is running for reelection next year. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told constituents during the Easter recess that he would not vote to lift the debt limit without a “real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction.”

It’s important to keep 2 things in mind. First, every legislator who voted for the 2011 budget deal is responsible for authorizing the government to spend $3.7 trillion while raising $2.2 trillion in tax revenues, and what we’re currently debating is whether the government will pay its tab or default on any debt that goes over the ceiling. And the debt limit needs to be raised under every budget proposal on the table — the GOP’s, Obama’s and the deficit commission co-chairs’.

Second, Congress has the power to authorize as much spending and raise as much in taxes as it pleases, but the 14th Amendment says that “the validity of the public debt, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.”

Ultimately, this is a big game. Last week, Stan Collender laid out how it’s likely to be played. He first cites a Marist poll showing that 7 out of 10 Americans oppose lifting the limit. He then sees the scenario going something like this:

  • No matter what the Treasury secretary, Wall Street, John Boehner, or anyone else says, opposing an increase in the debt ceiling will be the easiest position for most members of Congress to take.  Remember: 7 out of every 10 voters in the U.S. say they don’t want it raised.  This includes a majority of Democrats and substantial majorities of Republicans and independents.
  • This almost certainly means that most representatives and senators will need to vote against a debt ceiling bill at least once so that they have something on the record showing their constituents that they were with them.
  • Forecasts of a crisis will then allow enough members to vote for a debt ceiling increase.
  • This likely means that the debt ceiling won’t be raised until at least a month after the current borrowing limit has been reached and the situation appears to be getting desperate.
  • Congressional leaders, especially the Democrats, should recognize this and get this first vote over with as soon as possible.  Yes, it will be taken by some (especially international financial markets that typically overreact to political developments in the U.S. because they don’t understand the theater) as an indication that the debt ceiling won’t be raised, but the sooner this first vote is taken and the bill is defeated, the sooner the serious work on getting past this largely meaningless point in the budget debate can get started.
  • The GOP plan to tie substantial spending cuts to a debt ceiling increase isn’t likely to work because, as the poll shows, many of the reductions will be even more unpopular than than increasing the government’s borrowing limit.
  • If actual spending cuts won’t work, expect a budget process change of some kind — something that promises change without actually changing anything — to be included in the debt ceiling increase bill.  There’s a precedent for this: Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was adopted in 1985 as an amendment to a debt ceiling increase.

*Silly/ Sensible Party reference explained here. Cross-posted from AlterNet.

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About the Author

Joshua Holland

I write for AlterNet. I've written a book, The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy, which I recommend. You might also consider following me on Twitter.

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