President Biden declared that there'd be no negotiating on raising the debt ceiling. He assured that it was not in question whether we pay our bills. He insisted that we will not put conditions on America's meeting its debt obligations.
So, with reality looming, his aides have been in negotiations daily with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling.
House Republicans demanded real reductions in spending or spending growth before they'd vote to raise the debt ceiling.
So they've been arguing in debt-ceiling negotiations for faster energy permits and stricter work requirements on social safety-net programs for the woefully poor. Both those are major policies, not direct spending cuts, and matters that could be addressed any time with open debate, not as back-room conditions for the country's choosing sanity.
Especially intriguing is the Republican position on work requirements for the social safety net.
Let's say there is a poor low-wage working man toiling for next to nothing in a seasonal job offering no benefits, and who is on Medicaid. Let's say he gets sick. So, he misses work, losing even the low income on which he tries to live. Then he goes to the doctor with his Medicaid card, assuming he finds a doctor taking Medicaid patients, to try to get care that could get him back to work.
Meantime, Republican negotiators are saying in White House negotiations essentially that they will not agree for America to pay its due debt unless that sick poor man is denied health coverage, or gets constrained in coverage, on account of not working.
Imagine the headline: "U.S. defaults on debt because poor sick man has medical insurance, irking Republicans."
Media reports indicate Biden expressed private willingness in meetings with congressional leaders to consider unspecified revisions in those safety-net rules. But further media reports indicate the actual negotiators on behalf of the White House are resisting any such thing, in part due to pressure from congressional Democrats addled by what they heard their president had said.
Part of Biden's political problem is that he sometimes plays a centrist and sometimes plays a progressive, but pretty much always seems either out of the loop, cynically slippery or irrelevant.
Part of Republicans' problem is that they resent the government's helping poor people in need and, while saying their essence is reduced spending, typically reveal themselves as caring more about things like keeping poor people down and the speed with which energy companies can get exploration permits.
Part of America's problem is that the above is what it's stuck with in terms of political leadership.
Biden and even his negotiators have seemed receptive to the energy-permit expediting, which might make one wonder why that wasn't addressed already in its own legislation. The reason is that nothing gets done in Washington as stand-alone legislation, but only as leverage in a broader bill.
No rich narrative would be complete without irony, and the rich narrative of this fiscal cliff flirtation is no exception.
The irony is that the best way to get the debt ceiling raised perfunctorily without policy ransoms is for Republicans to occupy the White House.
Republicans didn't mind voting without conditions to raise the borrowing limit when Donald Trump was president. They didn't hold a gun to the global economy's head unless poor people got reduced services. They voted three times during Trump's tumult in the White House to raise, without condition, the debt ceiling.
Republicans only rise up against raising the debt ceiling when a Democrat is president. They're fine when Republican tax cuts are the main culprits in the rising deficit that compiles the debt.
And Democrats--because, ridiculous though they often be, they are not as irresponsible as Republicans--will go along as they should with avoiding fiscal calamity even if the other guys are in temporary possession of the presidency.
We need a simple bill from Republicans to put the squeeze on poor people. It won't pass.
We need a simple bipartisan bill to expedite energy permits. It will pass, being bipartisan.
We need unanimous votes in the House and Senate to pay our bills, and unanimous will in both chambers to try to slow down the piling up of those bills.
We need and deserve a greater comfort level among Americans than this predicament in which we flitter on the edge of irresponsibility and disaster and the guys mouthing about how they're going to save us are Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.