Why Obama and the Republicans will reach an agreement on the debt ceiling.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 16 2011 6:51 AM

We've Seen This Movie Before

The fight over the debt limit is following a familiar Washington script.

President Barack Obama meets with bipartisan leadership on fiscal policy. Click image to expand.
President Obama meets with House and Senate leaders in April

Allow me to go out on a limb here and predict that President Obama and Republican leaders will agree to raise the debt ceiling, averting an economic crisis. This prediction is based in part on reports I am hearing of tentative progress: Administration sources say both sides are agreeing to cuts in spending in a cordial and serious process, and that the cuts are distributed among the constituents of both parties. If they continue making progress, they'll be able to win the votes from House Republicans and nervous Senate Democrats to pass a debt ceiling increase.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

But you don't need to know any of that to make this prediction. You simply need to recognize exactly where we are in the midst of a familiar storyline. The debt ceiling fight is just like the fight over funding to keep the government from shutting down, which was just like the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts, which was just like … well, you get the idea.


Washington has become a Saturday serial like the kind they showed at the cinema in the middle of the last century. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger in which the hero or heroine is placed in a situation of imminent peril, from which there is no possible escape. Viewers had to return the next week to see how the last cliffhanger was successfully resolved and be introduced to the next cliffhanger.

Here's a brief viewers' guide to the action so that you can anticipate what's going to happen next and comfort your little sister, who is easily scared:

It's All About Economic Fear. All sides agree that failing to reach a deal on tax cuts/ funding the government/raising the debt ceiling would severely affect the fragile recovery. Agreement on this fact foreshadows the happy ending because in the end no wants to get stuck with the blame for harming the economy.

No New Taxes. Republicans refuse to support any deal that includes a tax increase. The president met with Republican senators last week and said any significant deficit reduction required to raise the debt ceiling could not be reached without some kind of tax increase. A House leadership aide says that House Speaker John Boehner expects the president to cave on this position as he did on tax cuts for the wealthiest.

Hostage-Taking. Last year, the president famously said "Republicans [were] holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires." During the shutdown fight that was Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer's claim. Last week White House spokesman Jay Carney took up the charge.

Enter the Vice President. To solve the situation, Joe Biden is called in to negotiate with leaders of both parties. The meetings are cordial. He appears afterward to offer his assessment of how well they went.

No Progress. News accounts say that no progress is being made. Pundits sound the alarm.

Progress. Meanwhile, negotiators are making progress. Pundits sound the alarm.