Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
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The Republican Debt-Ceiling Hostage Scheme Is Collapsing

Step one is naming a demand. The House can’t even do that!

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday, I wrote about the emergence of a possible plan B for the debt ceiling: Rather than try to extract a ransom, some Republicans want to attach a debt-ceiling hike to a bipartisan plan to reform infrastructure permits. But the response to that column made me realize I brushed too quickly past a step in the argument that not everybody has arrived at, so let me make that piece of the case more explicit: The whole hostage scheme is unraveling.

Republicans have begun to admit they can’t pass a budget plan before the debt limit expires. “I don’t see how we get there,” Financial Services Committee chair Patrick T. McHenry said. “And this is a marked change from where I’ve been. I don’t even see a path.”

Yesterday, House Budget Committee chair Jodey Arrington told The Wall Street Journal it may take until September — two months after the debt limit expires! — for Republicans to agree on a budget plan.

Republicans are responding to this failure by publicly begging Biden to negotiate with them, even without passing a plan of their own. But that is not how it works.

Biden has a proposal to lift the debt ceiling. His plan: vote to lift the debt ceiling.

Republicans reject that plan. They say they won’t lift the debt ceiling without also cutting spending. Biden’s response, quite naturally, is, Okay, what spending cuts are you demanding in return for lifting the debt ceiling?

Republicans have spent most of the year trying to come up with a set of spending cuts they will demand. They are obviously failing. So now they are asking Biden to negotiate even without a counteroffer.

“Why do we have to have a budget out to sit down and talk about the debt ceiling?” Speaker Kevin McCarthy pleaded at the House Republican retreat last week. Arrington told the Journal that Republicans “want to start talks immediately on a shorter list of demands for this year, without a formal budget in hand.”

But Biden has no incentive to agree to concessions if Republicans can’t even demonstrate those concessions would pass the House.

Biden has publicly stated he won’t pay a ransom in return for lifting the debt ceiling. Republicans are insisting on getting a ransom anyway, but they don’t seem to understand the basic constituent elements of a hostage-taking scheme. They are as follows:

1. Take a hostage
2. Promise to release the hostage in return for specified concessions
3. Threaten to kill the hostage if the demands aren’t met

Republicans are doing Nos. 1 and 3, but they are skipping the crucial second step in the process. And, of course, both sides understand Biden is going to reject the demand and insist the hostage be released. But we can’t get to that step in the process until Republicans name some demands. Begging Biden to meet with them and help them come up with demands isn’t how this process works. He isn’t going to put demands of his own on the table, because he doesn’t agree with them in the first place.

The permitting-reform trial balloon comes from the recognition by some Republicans that this process has gone badly awry. Clearly Republicans would love Biden to rescue them from their own blunder by committing an act of auto-extortion. The more realistic Republicans are looking at permitting reform as an endgame. Permitting reform would be a massive substantive win, so this is obviously a best-case scenario. But the fact that this is even being floated at all is an indication of how badly the Republican hostage plot is going.

The Republican Debt-Ceiling Hostage Scheme Is Collapsing