House Republicans should be careful of the way they're managing expectations in the debt limit fight.
As it is, many conservatives are already disappointed with the way the battle over this year's budget played out. They were expecting $100 billion in spending cuts because of the GOP's pledge made last year. Eventually that got reduced to $61 billion and then a deal was struck for $38 billion, but when the dust settled, the actual reduction in spending appeared much smaller than that. Republican leaders had explanations along the way – that the $100 billion was a number for the whole year, and that the final deal they struck did amount to real cuts in spending authority. But the bottom line is that conservatives had the impression that they'd be getting more than they ended up getting.
A similar result is likely when it comes to debt limit negotiations. For months, Republicans have made statements along the lines of this one from House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.: “Republicans will not agree to raise the debt limit without binding budget reforms and immediate spending cuts that will guarantee we don’t continue these bad spending practices in the future.”
As I reported last week, the Obama administration and Democrats are promoting the mistaken impression that there's a strict deadline for raising the debt limit, beyond which the U.S. would default on its debt. This is an exaggeration – there's no hard and fast deadline, and there are plenty of ways to keep paying our creditors. On the other hand, it's also true that as long as there's no plan to balance the budget immediately – which their isn't – eventually, the debt limit will have to be raised to accommodate increased debt payments. Since Obama knows that Republicans will eventually have to agree to raise the debt limit, he's unlikely to make major concessions. It's completely unrealistic to expect that Republicans and Democrats will agree on entitlement reforms anytime soon, nor is it likely that you'll see two-thirds majorities willing to support a balanced budget amendment. As it is, the current language of the amendment would make the Ryan budget (and even the House conservatives' budget) unconstitutional, because it does not deliver a balanced budget in five years.
All of this is to say that once Congress returns from its recess, we'll be treated to weeks of political rhetoric over the debt ceiling fight that the media will blow up out of all proportion. But at the end, Republicans will likely vote to raise the debt limit and gain only token concessions.
Having already been disappointed on the budget deal, the backlash among conservatives and Tea Party folks is likely to grow more severe the second time around. So that will mean all the pressure would build for the even bigger fight over Ryan's budget, which will come to a head in September. And there, too, Ryan's major proposals don't have much chance of becoming law with Obama in power.
Obviously, there's a limit to what House Republicans can do when Democrats control the Senate and the presidency. And leadership has made that point at times. But at other times, they've allowed unrealistic expectations to bloom. And that could become a growing problem for the GOP.