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Ruth Marcus: On debt ceiling, a different feel

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: September 21, 2013

Be afraid.

Be very, very afraid.

This is my chilling, and surprising, takeaway from numerous conversations with administration officials and members of Congress over the last several days about the looming need to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.

The chilling part is obvious. Having the government shut down, especially briefly, is stupid but survivable. (Economically, that is. The political ramifications are another matter.) We've been down this idiotic path before, and we may well be stumbling there again.

But leaving the government unable to borrow enough money to pay the debts it has already incurred is a different matter entirely. Breaching the debt ceiling evokes words like catastrophic and unthinkable, which is why it has never happened.

And why the notion that it might is so surprising. Astonishing, actually. Washington is used to government by crisis and deadline. Our creaky system is capable of rousing itself only when the train is bearing down the tracks.

So my usual way of analyzing these moments is to reason backward: The debt ceiling must be raised. Therefore it will be. The situation will seem to be at an unbreakable stalemate until, suddenly, a solution appears.

And this could well happen in the coming showdown. Let's hope so. But steady Washington hands worry that this time really could be different — and, remember, even edging close to default is costly.

There are four (at least) reasons to worry:

1. House Speaker John Boehner has chosen to play with fire, arguing to his colleagues that the ultimate showdown should be over raising the debt ceiling rather than extending government funding.

Boehner's calculation appears to be twofold: that Republicans have more to lose from a shutdown fight and that Republicans will therefore have more leverage with Democrats and President Obama if they make their stand on the debt ceiling.

This strategy hinges on the assumption that Obama will blink. This has some basis in reality: He's blinked before, and blinking in the face of imminent disaster might be the prudent thing to do.

Yet the president has been asserting for months that he will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States. This attitude is a trifle ahistoric: Presidents, including Obama, always make deals and offer concessions to secure an increase. But previous Congresses, however, have not been willing to take the debt ceiling extortion racket to the brink.

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