Ezra Klein adds some meat to my point about the way Democrats can work their way out of the box they’ve assembled for themselves.

Basically, Republicans have convinced themselves that they will have additional leverage if they look completely past the fiscal slope and the tax rate situation and move directly to taking the debt limit hostage. They believe that they can, as they did in 2011, force major concessions on spending, and this time social insurance cuts, if they simply refuse to increase the government’s borrowing capacity, threatening a default. This has led House Republicans to argue for delay on any deal until that debt limit comes into play, sometime in late February/early March.

The White House has, on the other hand, been adamant that they will not hold any negotiations on the debt limit, both publicly and privately. Their only offer on the debt limit is an offer to essentially nullify it permanently.

The Obama administration is utterly steadfast on this point: They will not suffer a repeat of 2011, when they conducted negotiations over whether the United States should default. If Republicans go over the cliff and try to open up talks for raising the debt ceiling, the White House will not hold a meeting, they will not return a phone call, they will not look at the e-mails. They will move to an entirely public strategy, rallying voters and the business community against the GOP’s repeated brinksmanship. Recall Obama’s speech to the Business Roundtable last week:

“I want to send a very clear message to people here: We are not going to play that game next year. If Congress in any way suggests that they’re going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation — which, by the way, we had never done in our history until we did it last year — I will not play that game. Because we’ve got to break that habit before it starts.”

They’re almost religious about this: They believe they owe it to future generations to break the back of the idea that minority parties can and should play Russian roulette with the economy.

And that’s welcome. But of course, that habit already started in 2011, when the White House welcomed the debt limit deadline as a means to put together a grand bargain. They opened this Pandora’s box, and now Republicans have learned from it by weaponizing the debt limit. It obviously would be a different situation now if that had never been done, if the White House just refused to negotiate.

It makes my brain hurt to game out the scenarios in that event. Maybe Republicans would have taken the country into default. Maybe they would have given up. Maybe the economy would have suffered worse than it did (and it did suffer). Maybe it would have bounced back faster by virtue of not setting the table for future hostage-taking. Maybe Mitt Romney would have capitalized on the chaos with an electoral victory. Maybe not.

The point is that this all started for one reason: the White House desired a deal, and they used what was at their disposal – the debt limit – to try and force a deal. And now Republicans are coming back for more. I’m glad that the Administration has apparently figured out the consequences of all this; I wish they did sooner.

It sets things up for a major showdown next year, with the fiscal slope honestly more of an afterthought. Maybe some deal will incorporate the debt limit, but I doubt Republicans will willingly give up that leverage forever without enormous concessions Democrats will reject. I don’t see a sweet spot in between there. More likely is some kind of partial government shutdown, where the executive branch closes everything they can’t pay for out of current funds, and blames Republicans for the results.

So when you hear Harry Reid say that it will be difficult to make a deal by Christmas, and John Boehner say that the President is slow-walking the situation, understand that the real conversation here is about the debt limit, the legacy of its weaponization, and how to disarm this thing in the aftermath.

Photo by Phil Roeder under Creative Commons license.