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Oh, Sweet Mercy, Are We About To Have Another Debt Ceiling Fight?

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One of the things I've been attempting to track the past few weeks is whether or not America is headed for another stupid, protracted fight over the debt ceiling. Technically, we will hit the debt ceiling deadline on Feb. 7, but you know the drill -- the Treasury can take a certain number of "extraordinary measures" to stave off a default crisis until the end of the month.

The Beltway scuttlebutt has gone back and forth for a number of weeks. Back on Jan. 22, the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was putting out word that a "clean debt limit increase simply won't pass in the House." As Jonathan Chait noted at the time, "Then how come a clean debt-ceiling bill passed the House three months ago by a vote of 285–144? And how come, nine months before that, a clean debt-ceiling increase passed the House by the same margin?"

Chait went on to note that for Republicans, who have bluffed and lost twice, staging a third round of hostage-taking just didn't make any logical sense:

But you can only try this bluff once. The only way it could still work would be if Obama either paid a ransom or Republicans shot the hostage. Once the mark knows you’re bluffing, it’s over. You can’t do it again. Nobody is falling for this.

And, indeed, reason seemed to have been briefly restored days later, when Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan reported "House Republicans are getting ready to surrender." At that moment in time, Chait's reasoning seemed to have finally taken hold in the House GOP caucus. Per Sherman and Bresnahan:

The reason for the shift in dynamics in this fight is clear. Congress has raised the debt limit twice in a row without drastic policy concessions from President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, essentially ceding ground to Democrats. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are again ruling out negotiations over the nation’s borrowing limit, which would leave Republicans fighting against a unified Democratic front. It’s a tricky situation for the GOP in an election year: They would have to pass a clean debt limit bill or risk default.

You see, reasons to avoid a contretemps over the debt limit abound. It's a bad -- and potentially costly -- idea to even threaten a default crisis. Obviously, causing one to actually happen would devastate the global economy in ways that could politely be called "epic."

Politically, it's a vastly stupid thing for Republicans to do. Right now, they are sitting in the catbird seat in terms of the midterm elections. It's all but certain they'll hold their House majority and they now have a better-than-even chance of taking the Senate. Perhaps the one thing they could do right now to scuttle their ambitions is to make a return to the days of the government shutdown and debt limit hostage psychodrama -- an extended period of time in which multiple Republican own goals alienated the public, and briefly improved the Democrats' midterm fortunes.

Beyond that, there's only so many times you can say you'll shoot the economy in the face, only to back down, before nobody takes you seriously anymore. The Obama administration has twice held the line against debt ceiling crackpottery, and they'll do so again as easily as drawing breath.

Even so, the House GOP's tenuous grasp on common sense seems to have slipped. As Sherman reported Friday, the third round of hostage-taking appears to be on, and once again, the issue is Obamacare:

During a closed meeting at their retreat here Friday morning, rank and file Republicans seemed to be gravitating toward trying a lift in the borrowing limit to the cancellation of the the so-called risk corridors and reinsurance fund in Obamacare. Both provisions are meant to limit the risk insurers have to take and prevent premium spikes. Advocates for the Affordable Care Act say these items are needed to help insurers balance the cost of accepting more patients.

Republicans see them as a bailout fund.

Actually, no. Republicans almost certainly do not see the risk corridors as a bailout fund. As Sarah Kliff explains, "Medicare Part D has existed for nearly a decade and still uses these type of policies to make the market for selling drugs to seniors a friendly one for insurers to enter." What's more, as Kliff goes on to explain, "risk corridors" aren't a "bailout" at all. Rather, they are a "pretty common feature of insurance design." Remember, the private insurers enrolling people in Obamacare have never had to price for this particular pool of enrollees before, so these mechanisms protect them from the damage of potential uncertainty in premium pricing.

Obamacare's "risk corridors" are a temporary mechanism that will expire in 2016, by which time the private insurers should have a better feel for the lay of the land. Until that time, any financial shortfalls that occur due to the uncertainty of this new risk pool will be paid out of a kitty that the private insurers have paid into. It's worth noting that any conceivable "Republican alternative to Obamacare" (assuming that these "alternatives" are actually intended to work) will have to include similar mechanisms.

So, the possibility that this is a genuine belief is approximately nil. Rather, the GOP sees an opportunity here: if they can convince enough people that the "risk corridors" in Obamacare are some kind of bailout -- and as Mike Konczal explains here, this entire premise is nonsense -- then it will create an opportunity for ... something?

That's what's so odd about this plan -- there's no way it will work. Obama is never going to sign a bill that strips insurance companies of these protections. Tying the measure to the debt ceiling won't work, either. The House GOP has tried this stunt before, and it failed. Odder still is the fact that staging another crisis of this nature is perhaps the only thing that can boost the Democrats' midterm fortunes.

Weeks ago, it seemed for all the world that GOP Obamacare opponents had settled into a wait-and-see posture, convinced that the law was just going to fail on its own. So I'm not sure what Republicans' calculations are here. Perhaps their read of the situation is that they pay a political cost if they don't continually remind their base of their opposition to Obamacare by staging and re-staging these kinds of apocalyptic events. I'd wager, however, that they aren't as confident in their wait-and-watch-Obamacare-collapse strategy as they'd have you believe.

Of course, it's also possible that the House GOP is just spitballing here, floating the idea of having another debt ceiling fight as a trial balloon. Usually, one of the best ways of divining what's happening behind the scenes in the House GOP caucus is to see what Washington Post reporter Robert Costa has observed. He's been staking out the scene, and here's what he reported Friday:

Under one scenario discussed Friday morning at the House GOP's annual policy retreat held on Maryland's Eastern shore, Republicans would agree to extend the debt limit for one year, but demand that there be "no bailouts for insurance companies under Obamacare," the lawmaker and aides said. House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) described to colleagues how this scenario could play out and conservative lawmakers in the room seemed supportive of the idea, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who spoke up in support and offered to help whip up support for the plan among Republicans.

But the aides stressed that Republican leaders have "not decided" or formalized a strategy and that no formal consensus would emerge Friday.

Yeah, you know, take this as one guy's considered opinion, but I think that anytime you float a plan and the most enthusiastic supporter in the room is Michele Bachmann, you should probably get yourself another plan.

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