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'Clean' debt limit bill concludes another round of gamesmanship in Congress

Did you hear about the game in Washington today? It was tense at times, but in the end, the blue team pulled off a decisive victory. But don’t worry, red team fans, your team promises to regroup (after a quick vacation) and figure out a way to win in November, when the games really count.

Nothing speaks to the dysfunction in Congress quite like the fact that a bipartisan debt limit bill will pass in the House tomorrow and both the media and some Republicans are treating what should be the most rudimentary function of our legislative bodies as a capitulation or outright loss.

Here’s your basic recap: On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he’ll bring a so-called “clean” debt limit bill to the house floor tomorrow that will be supported by Democrats, then forwarded to the Senate where it will likely pass, before being signed into law by President Obama. This bill will once again raise the debt limit, which at one point was a non-controversial gesture that amounts to not defaulting on your loans, but has become highly politicized issue in recent years. Most recently, it was at the heart of October’s government shutdown, which cost the economy $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s. The bill expected to pass tomorrow doesn’t really do anything beyond increasing the statutory debt limit; both parties agree that failure to do so could result in international financial catastrophe.

Given the political and economic disaster of last fall’s government shutdown, one would think that this would be perhaps the least divisive bill of this congressional session. Yet the overwhelming majority of House Republicans won’t vote for it, lest they be perceived as actually working with Democrats on an important issue that affects nothing short of the global financial markets. Even Boehner sounded peevish and embarrassed today, and he’s expected to be one of the few house Republicans to vote for the bill.

"We don't have 218 votes, and when you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing," Boehner said at his press conference today, referring to the number of Republican votes needed to pass a bill in the house without Democratic support.

Despite introducing the legislation and promising to vote for it, Boehner was careful to note that this is really the Democrats bill and that Republican support only extends to the bare minimum number of votes required for passage.

"We'll let the Democrats put the votes up. We'll put a minimum number of (GOP) votes up to get it passed," Boehner said. "We'll let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants."

What this means in terms of political gamesmanship (the only thing that really matters) is that the Republicans can not only “pin the extended borrowing on Democrats in an election year,” but bring this particular battle to a close and return their focus on “bashing Obama's healthcare law,” an issue they rallied around at a retreat last month.

With the conclusion of this round of fighting and the battle lines drawn for the next thrilling confrontation between the red and the blue teams, lets check out a recap of today’s action:

“Unable to corral his restive troops around a debt ceiling plan, Speaker John A. Boehner announced Tuesday he would bring a bill to the House floor to allow continued federal borrowing with no strings attached,” the Los Angeles Times story began. “Restive troops” who can not be corralled? Sounds exciting.

“This move amounted to a capitulation by Republicans to President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats,” the AP declared in clear, easily digestible win-or-lose terms.

Reuters characterized Republican leaders as having “caved in to demands by President Barack Obama,” which (to me) not only implies a bit of cowardice and weakness on the red team, but speaks to the power exerted by the captain of the blue team.

These are all colorful ways of discussing the legislation. Another way would be: “Republican John Boehner plans on introducing a debt limit bill that’s expected to make its way through Congress and be signed by the President that will allow the government to continue operations and avoid default for at least another year.”

Maybe that’s overly simplistic, and it’s certainly not as dramatic, but it sure sounds better to me.

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