I worked on debt limit bills from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, helping enact eight of them during my time as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and as an advisor to President Bush.

Here are a few reactions to the President’s debt limit comments in yesterday’s press conference.

  • The President did not threaten to veto a debt limit bill. He substituted insults of Congressional Republicans for formal legislative threats. It’s easy to get distracted by the insults, but the absence of a formal threat is more important.
  • This reinforces my view that the President views the debt limit as a must-pass bill, and that anyone in Congress who can attach other legislation to it has a good chance of it becoming law. The debt limit can only carry so much additional legislative weight, so the smart strategy is for House Republican leaders to attach something that is modest, closely related to deficits and debt, and difficult for Democrats to reject. Speaker Boehner and Senator Sessions both have good ideas that meet these criteria.
  • Without a veto threat the President must rely on Leader Reid and Senate Democrats to water down or even remove spending cuts or other fiscal reforms that House Republicans may attach. In a strange way this is good for spending cutters, who should prefer to negotiate with Senate Democrats to negotiating with the President.
  • The President is trying to frame the issue as “Me responsible, them reckless.” But setting aside the fringes of each party, this is not a debate about whether to increase the debt limit, but about for how long and how much spending should be cut at the same time. It is also a struggle for control of the legislative agenda for at least the next two years.
  • The President is on weak ground when he tries to argue that a debt limit bill should be clean. He has signed four debt limit increases into law, only one of which was clean. The first was attached to the $800+ B stimulus bill, the second to a set of PAYGO reforms that Democrats supported and Republicans opposed, and the fourth was attached to the summer 2011 Budget Control Act that cut spending, set up the deficit reduction Super Committee, and created the sequester. Debt limit increases are often attached to fiscal policy legislation, and usually to bills that reduce the deficit. Kudos go to Major Garrett of CBS News for a tough question yesterday that highlighted this point.
  • The President is also on weak ground when he argues that short-term debt limit increases are unusual or radical. Modern history includes both short-term and long-term extensions. President Obama signed a four-month extension, and the U.S. has spent more than seven of the last 30 years operating under extensions that lasted less than a year. The median increase in that timeframe lasted about four and a half months.
  • He argues there is no good policy reason to do a small, short-term increase, but makes it clear that he does not expect to reach agreement with Congress on future spending cuts. In doing so he makes the clearest possible case for the benefit of small, short-term debt limit increases. That’s the only way spending-cutters in Congress will be able to keep unsustainable government spending front-and-center on the agenda. They should not expect to make tremendous progress in solving that issue with this President, but it’s better to revisit the issue a couple times a year, even unsuccessfully, than to return quietly to the unsustainable spending status quo.
  • He is pretending to frame this as “be responsible and increase the debt limit now, and we’ll reduce the deficit later,” but by saying repeatedly only that he is willing to engage in a “vigorous debate” rather than to “negotiate” or “work toward a bipartisan solution,” he is signaling that he has no intention of compromising and no expectations for legislative success in enacting future deficit reduction. His strategy is to raise the debt limit now for as long as possible, then reject Republican demands to cut spending and move on to other issues. Usually a President says “vigorous debate” at the beginning of an election year. It is dispiriting but not surprising that he is saying it right after being reelected.
  • He is afraid of getting jammed by small short-term debt limit increases (as I have recommended). Really afraid. This path would keep fiscal issues front-and-center when he wants to punt them, and it would force him to pay a price every few months. Just as in 2011 his top priority was to get a debt limit increase that lasted past the election so he would not have to negotiate again, his top priority is to make certain he isn’t forced to do this often. The primary leverage Congressional Republicans have on this bill is the size and duration of an increase, not the ability to deny any increase. The President will pay to do this infrequently.

(photo credit: White House video)