On Debt Ceiling, Geithner Tries to Cut the Floor Out from Under GOP

“I need absolute certainty that we've made the critical changes that are necessary to put this country back where it needs to go. And unless we do that, there's no way I support it.”

-- Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace” discussing President Obama’s demand for an increase in federal borrowing power

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is working hard to undercut the Republican bargaining position on an increase in federal borrowing power sought by President Obama.

But even as Geithner spoke, Republicans seemed to be hardening their position that more borrowing power would come at a high price to the president’s preferred programs.

The request to increase the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling is hugely unpopular among the Republicans on Capitol Hill. In fact, it was having the chance to face off with the administration over the debt limit that helped get Republican support for last week’s short-term spending plan.

The fiscal hard-liners are focused intently on the president’s request, his fourth since taking office. The most recent was a $1.9 trillion bump authorized by a Democratically controlled Congress in February 2010. The consensus among Congressional Republicans was that it was better to risk a government shutdown over the big issue of the debt ceiling instead of quibbling over small trims to the deficit for the final 25 weeks of the federal fiscal year.

But Geithner’s message on his limited tour of the Sunday shows was that Republican leaders had already sold out the rank and file on the debt ceiling. Democrats have taken heart from the 26 percent of House Republicans who defected on the short-term funding bill and have consistently tried to portray House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor as hostages of the radical members of their caucus.

Geithner worked to establish this line of attack on Sunday, saying that Republican leaders had assured Obama and him in a Wednesday meeting last week that the president’s demand would be met and that there would be “no games” played over the request.

But there is a serious word game being played here. Geithner is talking about the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its obligations. Republicans are talking about the debt ceiling, which are technically two different things. The federal government pays about 40 percent of its bills with borrowed money so a debt ceiling stalemate doesn’t mean automatic default but instead a partial government shutdown and a lot of anxious creditors.

This also reflects Geithner’s other challenge – ordering the cars in the debt train. Geithner has broad latitude to determine when a showdown turns into a crisis. It is in Geithner’s bargaining interest to have the crisis seem as imminent as possible to exert maximal pressure on Republicans to capitulate. But, the closer to the cliff he runs, the harder it will be to avert an actual disaster if the administration reaches an impasse with the GOP.

For now, though, the administration is focused on talking up the prospects of an international financial crisis and working to sew suspicion among Hill Republicans by suggesting that Obama and Boehner are on the same team against the fiscal hardliners.

The answer from Republicans, though, is that Geithner is leaving out the most important part of their position. Yes, they want to avoid default. Yes, they know that this is serious business. Yes, they understand that the debt ceiling must be raised to even meet the obligations already made by the government. But, no, they will not grant the president’s request without major debt and deficit trims.

The president has acknowledged that there will be some cuts in the debt ceiling deal, but Republicans are taking about systemic changes and Obama is talking about some tweaks. Among the only specifics the president has offered are a pair of tax increases for high-income taxpayers and reductions at the Pentagon.

While Congress is out for a two-week Easter recess, the administration will continue the effort to divide the GOP and marginalize those who would bargain over the debt limit while Republicans will struggle themselves as responsible stewards but not sellouts.

A Step Closer to Peacekeeping Forces in Libya

“A humanitarian presence.”

-- Description by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the international habitation to be established in Tripoli

The U.N. has concluded a successful negotiation with the government of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi to provide assistance to the citizens of the loyalist capital of Tripoli.

This is the latest and strongest sign that some sort of internationally negotiated cease-fire and partition of the country is in the offing. The U.N. commitment and Qaddafi’s willingness to accept the international presence necessary to support the relief effort mean that the deal is afoot. The U.N. already has a presence in the rebel capital of Benghazi and now will be assisting in the loyalist capital, suggesting equivalence.

Since the U.N.’s rulings are the basis on which the U.S. and our Western allies entered the war, the U.N.’s move makes a fresh offensive to topple Qaddafi look unlikely. Rather hard to pound government installations if they are next door to the U.N. rice dispensary.

Qaddafi’s forces are working hard to eject rebel forces from Misrata, the only rebel stronghold outside of their tribal homeland in the East. Using armor and light artillery, government forces have now cornered the Cyrenaicans and Islamists still holding on in the port city.

If Misrata falls to government forces, the work of the Wilsonian set working to establish a new nation in the east would be much easier. But it would also leave the government in control of the central oilfields and with the means to export it. If the rebels hold on, it will mean a weaker position for already reduced Libyan state.

Perhaps the city itself will be partitioned. The rebels have equated battle there to the one for Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943 that left casualties of nearly 2 million and decisively turned the Eastern Front in the Soviets’ favor. This is looking more like the battle for Mogadishu in 1993 between rival Somali tribes that left several hundred dead and the city in a shambles.

NATO forces hit targets around Tripoli and in Qaddafi’s oilfield hometown of Sirte over the weekend, but the air war seems likely to soon give way to a more traditional no-fly zone. But since Qaddafi doesn’t have an air force anymore, that should be pretty manageable work.

Taliban Ramps Up Spring Offensive Ahead of Obama Drawdown

“The enemy has lost their power to fight our forces face to face, and they’re using different cowardly tactics. They are using our holy uniform.”

-- Maj. Niaman Atifi of the Afghan army talking to the Washington Post

Allied forces are scrambling to adjust their approach after a third attack in a week by Taliban infiltrators inside the Afghan army. Today’s suicide bombing struck the Afghan Defense Ministry, in the heart of Kabul’s equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

As the Taliban begins its spring offensive it has lots of problems. The group has lost control over several strategic spots, especially in the southern part of the country. U.S. forces have cleared and held key spots in the Taliban homeland and the CIA has disrupted the group’s command chain by assassinating the middle managers of the organization.

But the enemy is adapting. Just as the Taliban a few years ago embraced the use of roadside bombs developed in the Iraq war, the group and its al Qaeda allies have embraced the practice of suicide bombing. After generations of fighting in tribal clashes as soldiers, the Afghan enemy has learned how to fight like insurgents.

The second in the series of attacks reportedly killed five Americans on Saturday when a suicide bomber in Afghan fatigues showed up for a training session being hosted at a forward operating base in the eastern Laghman Province.

Since the Afghan army is a motley force to begin with and the U.S is pushing hard to ramp up enlistment and training, the attacks cause not only losses to our forces but undermine the credibility of the ragtag Afghan service and add new risks to recruitment and instruction.

If our troops can’t trust the uniformed Afghans, they can’t train them. If the citizens, largely unaccustomed to the ideas of central government and a standing army, can’t trust the uniformed Afghans, they can’t support them.

President Obama in an AP interview Friday again waved off suggestions by his military commanders that the June deadline the president set for beginning the military drawdown of the 100,000-man U.S. force would be inconsequential.

Obama, facing increasing public dissatisfaction with his nation-building effort in Afghanistan and fresh complaints about his decision to commit the U.S. to the Libyan civil war, insisted that there would be a “significant” troop withdrawal this summer. Remember also that the president’s still-amorphous debt plan calls for substantial trims at the Pentagon.

Obama’s insistence on an Afghan drawdown also comes as Pakistan, the 170 million-citizen, nuclear-armed state next door, continues to teeter on the brink of Islamism. The CIA drone attacks on enemy leaders there have helped disrupt the Taliban’s chain of command, but the strikes are hugely unpopular in Pakistan.

This spate of terror attacks suggests the weakened strategic position of the Taliban after an 18-month U.S. offensive, but it also reflects the kind of commitment and desperation in the enemy that will make nation building hard to do.

The Libyan war has strained the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon. If Obama pushes through a troop reduction that many in uniform say would result in more American losses if he continues to embrace a nation-building approach, that rift will deepen.

Pawlenty Tries to Show His Fighting Side

“(President Obama has) proven that someone can deserve a Nobel Peace Prize less than Al Gore.”

-- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty delivering a new pepper-packed stump speech in New Hampshire

The Tea Party is taking a second look at former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty now that the 2012 candidate has embraced a harder line against President Obama and fiscal compromise in his own party.

Pawlenty got attention for his declaration last week that Republicans should have voted down an Obama-House GOP spending deal for the remainder of the federal fiscal year. It’s consistent with Pawlenty’s past position on a partial government shutdown, but expressed in sharper terms.

“He’s talking the talk,” said a leader from one national Tea Party group considered crucial for the GOP primary process. “We’ll see if he can walk the walk.”

With the first presidential debate 17 days away, the still largely unknown Pawlenty is looking to carve out a niche for himself. The new material has a Trumpian ring – lots of one liners and hard punches.

A strategist from a rival campaign called the spicier talk from the Minnesota nice guy a “cynical” campaign move that would backfire. But one Pawlenty backer suggested that the sharper tone stems from a change in audience and a change in circumstance.

“He’s not talking just to people in Minnesota anymore,” the prominent supporter said. “He can express himself in more direct terms than he could when trying to govern a heavily Democratic state.”