POLITICS
04/12/2011 07:51 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2011

Debt Ceiling Fight: Democrats See Republicans In 'Blazing Saddles' Strategy

WASHINGTON -- Are Republicans following a “Blazing Saddles” strategy in the looming standoff over the nation’s debt limit?

Imagine the scene in the Mel Brooks classic, where Cleavon Little points a gun at his own head and threatens to shoot if the armed townspeople don’t drop their weapons.

“Listen to him, men. He's just crazy enough to do it!” one says.

That’s how some Democrats view GOP demands for “really, really big” concessions on spending and deficits in return for raising America’s debt ceiling. They think Republicans are essentially threatening to take a step that would spark an economic catastrophe -- and that the public would blame the GOP for it.

“It reminds me of the joke where the guy comes home and finds his wife in bed with another guy, puts the gun to his head and his wife starts laughing,” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) told the Huffington Post. “He says ‘Who are you laughing at? You’re next!’”

“The next hostage event seems to be the debt limit,” House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

“The only reason you can hold hostage something is because the other side wants to act responsible,” he added. “Therefore you think, even though they don't want what you're pressing, that [Democrats will] take it to prevent a bigger harm. I think that's irresponsible."

Even some Republicans privately wonder how the leadership can plausibly threaten a move that could pull the plug on the economy while arguing they want to fix the economy.

“That’s a damn good question,” one GOP Financial Services aide acknowledged. “Even the Ryan budget requires raising the debt ceiling,” the staffer said, referring to the Republicans’ 2012 budget plan offered last week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

“It’s Alice in Wonderland territory,” the aide said.

To recap, the U.S. debt ceiling is the maximum amount set by Congress that the country can borrow to meet its obligations. Now standing at $14.3 trillion, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner warns the nation will hit it in mid-May. The Treasury can juggle the books for several weeks after that to pay the bills, but America will default for the first time since dropping the gold standard if the limit is not raised by early July.

Economists have warned defaulting would spark economic calamity, beginning with spiking interest rates on bonds and potentially ending with a new, worse recession.

“Yes, the Republicans are threatening to wreck the U.S. economy unless they get their way,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chaired the Joint Economic Committee before the GOP won the last election.

The reason the GOP stance seems like a bad joke to many Democrats is that Congress can't avoid raising the debt limit, whatever anyone says. The math just won’t allow it.

It's all but impossible to cut enough from the budget to avoid smacking into the limit, which last week was only about $80 billion away, a fact that many people have overlooked..

According to the Congressional Research Service, the nation needs to raise its debt limit by $738 billion just to finish 2011 -- and there is only about $688 billion in discretionary spending left for the second half of the year. Cutting that spending would only delay the need to hike the debt, because there is, after all, an awful lot of interest to pay.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, noted that the debt involves money that was already spent: on wars, an unfunded Medicare drug program and tax cuts, for instance, which he pointed out he didn't support.

“The way you deal with debt is by not incurring it,” Frank told HuffPost. “The notion that you can incur it and then ignore it is stupid.”

Yet Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has vowed to use the debt ceiling as a " leverage moment," and declared Tuesday, “We’re only talking about even doing this [raising the debt limit] if we can be assured there are guarantees in place that the spending doesn’t get out of control here.”

“Maybe they’ve got an imaginary magic leverage stick,” quipped Ackerman, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee.

Thinking along fairy tale lines, Frank argued that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) know what has to be done. But he said they could have a hard time doing it because of both the new Tea Party members in their base and fears of primary challenges from the Tea Party.

“Nobody knows just how far removed from reality these people are,” Frank said. “If we were dealing with just John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, it would be one thing. When you’re dealing with John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, it’s unpredictable."

“This is not Samuel Adams’ Tea Party; this is Lewis Carroll’s Tea Party we’re dealing with here,” Frank said.

And that gives Democrats pause, Ackerman said, leaving him feeling a little like Cleavon Little’s townspeople.

“The problem is they might just go ahead and do it,” Ackerman said.

“In a political world in which [Minnesota Republican Rep.] Michele Bachmann is a serious person, then not raising the debt limit becomes a serious threat,” said Frank.

Ackerman and Frank, though, think maybe it’s time to call the bluff, rather than have Democrats give the GOP concessions as they did on this year's budget and last winter's tax cuts.

“They’re in charge, which means they’re supposed to be the grown-ups this year,” said Ackerman, admitting, as Frank did, that the minority party generally opposes the debt limit. “But their strategy of 'let’s hold our breath until our face turns blue' is not a good strategy. I think the American people will blame them.”

“Refuse to pay any attention to the threat,” Frank advised his colleagues and the White House. “And make no concessions.”

“I think it’s clear they’d pay a very high price for this,” Frank added.

Nevertheless, reports from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Tuesday suggested President Obama might throw the GOP at least several bones in his fiscal responsibility speech set for Wednesday -- a prospect frowned upon by Ackerman.

“For my taste, I’d like to see a stronger executive branch where they’re really helping direct things rather than standing by just watching them,” he said.

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