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Dana Milbank

OPINION: GOPers revel in debt politics

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
OPINION: GOPers revel in debt politics
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

WASHINGTON -- What occurred beneath the Capitol Dome on Wednesday afternoon was the U.S. Open of political gamesmanship, and freshman Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York was the event's Novak Djokovic.


Just six weeks ago, Reed and 173 other House Republicans voted in favor of a deal to raise the debt limit and avoid default. Reed called it "a significant step forward" at the time. But on Wednesday, Reed sponsored a "disapproval resolution" on the House floor that would, if successful, throw the nation into default -- and 227 of his GOP colleagues joined him in voting for it. They were, evidently, against default before they were for it.

"I come here this morning," Reed explained (it was 2:34 p.m.), "or this afternoon, and offer this resolution to send a message to the president, to the world, to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, that we cannot take our eye off the ball."

Arguably, the very fact that Republicans were having this debate meant that they had lost track of the ball. Fourteen million Americans are out of work -- and House Republicans were staging an encore presentation of this summer's debt-limit fight, which rattled consumers and helped drag down the economy. Adding to the silliness, the Senate had already rejected this latest flirtation with default, and, in any event, House Republicans didn't have enough votes to overcome a veto.

So why were Reed and his colleagues wasting time forcing a pointless vote? Perhaps they have their eyes on a different ball.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the politics of debt-skirmishing are working for Republicans. Anybody who doubts this can now be refuted in just three characters: NY9. On Tuesday, in a special election in New York's 9th Congressional District, the seat held until recently by the self-portraitist Anthony Weiner was won overwhelmingly by a Republican.

On Wednesday, Democrats tried every possible excuse for that result. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained that the seat "opened up under what can best be called unusual circumstances."

"It is among the most conservative districts in New York City," said liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer, who once held the seat.

"There were a lot of local issues involved," argued Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

But the lopsided defeat must be attributed in part to the woeful economy under President Obama. And, likewise, Republicans can reasonably view the New York win as validation of their strategy of rejecting economic stimulus in favor of debt reduction. Even if their policy motives for this are pure, the grim truth is that the fewer jobs the economy adds, the better Republicans will do next year.

As part of this summer's debt-limit compromise, Republicans had given themselves the right to schedule the symbolic "disapproval" votes, which allow members to claim that they are against raising the debt limit even though they voted to do exactly that. But this exercise became more cynical when House Republicans decided to proceed with the plan even after the Senate killed the measure. So much for those planks in the GOP "Pledge to America" where they promised a "government more transparent in its actions" and "honest in its dealings."

Democrats took turns ridiculing Wednesday's spectacle. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts credited Republicans with furthering "the tradition of comedy in America." But Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, failing to find the same level of humor, said the resolution "is really about blind rage."

Republicans didn't seem angry, though. In fact, they seemed to be having fun as they revived their chants from this summer's debt battle. When Levin pointed out that the Conference Board "noted a direct link" between falling consumer confidence and the summer's default brinkmanship, Reed smiled broadly. "We will focus on jobs," he promised.

Some other time, perhaps. Wednesday was a time for House Republicans to revive slogans from the debt-limit standoff.

"We're tired of political talking points and what we need is action!" announced Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., who voted to increase the debt limit before he voted to disapprove of it.

"Enough is enough!" said Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla. "Enough is enough!" he repeated a moment later. "And, like I said before, enough is enough!" Mack added for good measure.

If only he would heed his own advice.