07/02/2011 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2011

Debt Ceiling Strategy for Democrats

Democrats should take a page out of the Republican playbook: Fashion their own debt-ceiling bill in collaboration with the White House, pass it in the Senate under reconciliation, and then put the House under enormous pressure as the drop-dead date approaches.

The strategic problem with the debt-ceiling 'debate' is that there are too many groups of actors to focus the issue, the solution, and the blame if it does not result in a successful conclusion. Today, there is the White House, House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and, among the Republicans, the Tea Partiers. That is 5-6 different buckets and perspectives that get constantly reported and participate in the jabberfest.

Six needs to be reduced to 2. At that point, there would be one group with a passed bill that can be signed and become law; the other is the obstructionist. The inevitable whining will not command sustained attention because there is too much at stake. Indeed, the Democrats ought to say explicitly that bipartisanship requires adults on both sides. All eyes will be on the House.

The next step, therefore, in the debt-ceiling kabuki dance is for the Democrats to agree among themselves on a total plan, and pass it in the Senate under reconciliation, with the president indicating he will sign it, and the House Democrats announcing their support. Instead of negotiating with Republicans, the Democrats can do this all by themselves.

Strategically, that move eliminates Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Jim DeMint (R-SC) et al. as players and shifts all the pressure onto House Speaker John Boehner. Facts, public opinion, his own prior statements and media will be pushing Boehner from one side to act, and his Tea Party will be threatening him from the other. It will be enough to make him pale.

The bill need not begin with what Republicans might agree to, we know the answer to that. Rather, it can be the best the Democrats can agree upon among themselves, with due regard for the optics if Boehner triggers a default. That is, the Democrats need to have a budget whose total deficit comes under that created by the Ryan Plan. That should not be difficult, especially since Ryan handed his wealthy paymasters a $2.5 trillion tax cut.

Kent Conrad (D-ND) hinted he had a bill to which all Democrats on his budget committee, including Bernie Sanders (I-VT), had agreed*. If true, then the Democrats can act quickly, and let Speaker Boehner know that about 30 Republican House votes stand between America's solvency and default.

Although one assumes Senator Sanders would have ensured that this measure does not hurt the vulnerable, and protects Medicare and Medicaid, one would also hope that immediate infrastructure spending were a key part of the bill. If not, it ought to be layered in.

Nor should the Democrats compromise. They will have a bill (Conrad's or some other) that they all agree to support. It will have passed the Senate. House Democrats say they will vote for it. The president indicates he is willing to sign it. Finally, the Democrats would have drawn their "line in the sand", and with something concrete and ready to be passed.

At that point, Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce will be able to focus 100% of their attention on a smaller group. Economists and other experts can line up behind something concrete. The president can bring a large group of experts to the White House to endorse the bill. The Senate can hold hearings. No one remotely responsible will balk, knowing the alternative of inaction.

It will then be, "Your move, Speaker Boehner".

*This article is not meant to be an endorsement of Conrad's plan. I do not even know what it is, and, other than Conrad's suggestion, one does not know if Bernie Sanders has signed on. Rather, the point is that they should ignore the Republicans (with the one exception noted in the text), write the most rational bill that gets the necessary Democratic support, and pass it in the Senate.

A number of comments have wondered whether Article I, Section 7, indicating that all revenue bills must "originate" in the House, would preclude this approach. It does not. The House passed the Ryan Budget. The bill described in the article can be offered in the Senate as an Amendment to the Ryan Budget, as the Senate's Constitutional role in these matters is to "Amend and Concur".