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How Obama Can Prevent Another Debt-Ceiling Crisis

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Nov. 16, 2012, file photo, Obama and Boehner in the Roosevelt Room. (Carolyn Kaster/AP) Nov. 16, 2012, file photo, Obama and Boehner in the Roosevelt Room. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
As the country nears the fiscal cliff, it's deja vu all over again. Republicans are now asserting that they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling if they don't get their way in the negotiations. In response, some Democrats want President Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. What they don't understand is that doing so is not only legally dicey, it is also completely unnecessary for Obama to prevail. Obama's correct--and constitutional--response to Republican intransigence is the same as Bill Clinton's before him: a replay of the 1995 government shutdown. If Republicans force that confrontation, they will lose, just as they did before.

Republicans are in a pretty poor bargaining position in the fiscal cliff negotiations. They know that if President Obama simply does nothing, the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1st and defense spending will be cut. At that point Obama can propose lowering taxes for the middle class--but not the rich--and raising defense spending as part of new grand bargain on taxes and spending. The Republicans will be hard pressed to say no. After all, if they refuse to play ball, all they will get is higher taxes and cuts to defense. That's not winning.

As a result, House Speaker John Boehner has tried to return to the same strategy he used in the summer of 2011. He wants to tie the debate over taxes and spending to an increase in the debt ceiling. It's important to understand that raising the debt ceiling does not increase spending by itself. It merely allows the Treasury to issue new government bonds to pay for monies that Congress has already appropriated by law.  Essentially, refusing to raise the debt ceiling after you've already appropriated expenditures is like telling your creditors that you won't pay debts you've already contracted because you have conveniently decided to run out of money.

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