White House wins on the debt ceiling, exceeding Charlie Rangel’s expectations

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Republican leaders emerged from their caucus retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia today pledging to pass a short-term extension of the debt ceiling.

"Next week, we will authorize a three month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a statement.

That comes after Texas senator Jon Cornyn, who heads the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, assured the Houston Chronicle that Republicans would not let the country default on its debts.

With the necessary caveat that the Republican caucus don't always follow the best-laid plans of its leadership, the move seems to be an attempt to shift the fight over spending cuts to one over the federal budget and the impending sequestration cuts, rather than have a debate about paying the nation's debt. The extension would push the debt limit fight into April, with the government scheduled to run out of funds in March.

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It's a big shift, since the debt ceiling was the party's preferred battleground just a few weeks ago.

And it would appear to be a victory for Democrats, who had been trying to figure out a way to avoid default without acceding to the deep spending cuts being demanded by Republicans.

President Obama had pledged to stand firm this time against any negotiations over the debt ceiling, though Republicans and reporters had both questioned why this time would be any different than the previous times he had pledged to stand firm, before caving to concessions.

And Democrats, fearing Obama would repeat his past behavior, had begun to float solutions that didn't require Republican cooperation, like a trillion-dollar coin, or a previously-uninvoked clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"I have no idea what that means," Rep. Charlie Rangel told me last week when I asked about Obama's red line against negotiating. "But I'm going to be a spectator for that one, I'm going to have a front row seat. Rangel said it would be tough to tell Republicans "that he's not going to negotiate with you, when they're running around saying, 'Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood.'"

The White House issued a statement that called the announcement "encouraging."

"The President has made clear that Congress has only two options: pay the bills they have racked up, or fail to do so and put our nation into default," said press secretary Jay Carney in a statement. "We are encouraged that there are signs that Congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle class families depend on. Congress must pay its bills and pass a clean debt limit increase without further delay. And as he has said, the President remains committed to further reducing the deficit in a balanced way."