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Is Obama On The Brink Of Cutting Social Security? The Dangerous Game Over the Debt Ceiling

The administration floated the idea of cutting Social Security, then denied it just as quickly. What's really going on with all this debt ceiling brinksmanship?

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Finally, the White House may have surveyed the lay of the land in Congress and concluded that cutting a deal to head off default is unlikely. As polling guru Nate Silver notes, “The Republican Party is dependent, to an extent unprecedented in recent political history, on a single ideological group,” and that group is hard-core conservatives. The Tea Party base has taken on so much influence within the party that the GOP leadership can't “compromise on something like the debt ceiling, even when it might seem they have substantial incentive to do so,” writes Silver. As a result, the GOP's leadership is being forced to hew to an absolutely pure position that no increases in tax revenues can be included in a deal.

And that internal struggle between the GOP establishment and its Tea Party-infused base is only one of the divides that would have to be bridged in order to come to a last-minute agreement. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, doesn't have enough votes within his own caucus to move any debt limit deal that would have a chance of passing the Democratically controlled Senate – which is debating its own, more balanced plan – and gain the president's signature. He needs some Democrats. But the Dems, having offered most of what the GOP wants only to see them walk away from the table, refuse to accept any deal with a lot of painful cuts but zero new revenues.

Rep Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, told TPM that "without overwhelming support from our caucus I think it will be a hard deal to pass," and 24 house progressives sent a letter to the White House on Thursday demanding revenue increases and insisting that “no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security” be included in a debt deal.

If the White House has come to see a deal to raise the debt limit as unlikely, then this leak is about positioning itself politically for the fall-out. The consequences of a default aren't precisely known, but it would certainly be disastrous for the recovery, and this move would allow the Democrats to say that they put everything on the table, including the social safety net programs they cherish most, but the GOP refused to budge if it entailed closing a few loopholes for the wealthy.

It's what James Baker, writing about the fundamentals of complex, multilateral negotiations, called “laying the dead cat at the door” of your opponents – making sure they take the blame for the consequences of failing to come to an agreement. During Thursday's press conference, Carney talked a lot about how “both sides need some skin in the game” and said, “the reasonable thing to do here is be willing to accept less than your ideal outcome, because you acknowledge that the only possible outcome if you hope to achieve something significant is a compromise.” The White House, in this view, is positioning itself to look like the only grownups in the room.

These three possibilities provide a kind of Rorschach test for one's views of the administration – Obama is either a Manchurian progressive, the capitulator-in-chief, or is cunningly playing the game two steps ahead of the crowd.

Whatever the case, it's a volatile and dangerous situation. While House Republicans are taking an intractable stance, the leadership is also using their caucus's hardline position as a negotiating tactic, telling the White House that even if they wanted to play ball, their members won't let them. It's unclear to what extent that's true, as Nate Silver suggests, and to what extent it's bluff – time will tell.

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