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House Speaker John Boehner makes a brief statement to the media at the Capitol in Washington December 19, 2012. Frustrated by their inability to wring more
Buried under 16 paragraphs of whining comes this interesting nugget from Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore's writeup of an interview with House Speaker John Boehner late last week:
I ask Mr. Boehner if he will take the debt-ceiling talks to the brink—risking a government shutdown and debt downgrade from the credit agencies—given that it didn't work in 2011 and President Obama has said he won't bargain on the matter.

The debt bill is "one point of leverage," Mr. Boehner says, but he also hedges, noting that it is "not the ultimate leverage." He says that Republicans won't back down from the so-called Boehner rule: that every dollar of raising the debt ceiling will require one dollar of spending cuts over the next 10 years. Rather than forcing a deal, the insistence may result in a series of monthly debt-ceiling increases.

I'm not entirely sure what Boehner is trying to say here, but the one thing that I am sure of is that by saying the debt limit is "not the ultimate leverage" he's trying to give himself some wiggle room. And while he does say he continues to support the Boehner rule, he seems to believe monthly increases might be a loophole of sorts that would allow him to raise the debt limit without getting Boehner rule cuts.

At least on the face of it, I think Boehner is crazy if he thinks his caucus will want monthly votes on raising debt celing to go onto their voting record, but the point here is that he is tacitly acknowledging the weakness of the GOP's debt limit gambit. So, now that he's trying to back away from having it be a centerpiece of the party's legislative strategy, what might take its place?

The Republicans' stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs—defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

As Mr. Boehner tells the story: Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester—the other "cliff"—because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. "It wasn't until literally last week that the White House brought up replacing the sequester," Mr. Boehner says. "They said, 'We can't have the sequester.' They were always counting on us to bring this to the table."

Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work. "I got that in my back pocket," the speaker says. He is counting on the president's liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester's sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is "as much leverage as we're going to get."

That leverage, he reasons, is what will force Democrats to the table on entitlements. "Think of it this way. We already have an agreement [capping] discretionary spending for 10 years. And we're already in our second year of it. This whole discussion on the budget over the next several months is going to be about these entitlements."

So, according to Boehner, the House GOP's real leverage isn't the debt limit—it's that they are prepared to accept the sequester's budget cuts if Democrats aren't willing to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But Democrats aren't going to be willing to cut those programs unless Republicans agree to new tax revenues. With Republicans ruling out any new revenue, the sequester is pretty much the only spending cut game in town. And Boehner appears to be laying to the groundwork to simply accept it as is and to call everything else a draw.

Originally posted to The Jed Report on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 09:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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