Obama weakened as US passes debt bill

The immediate crisis has been averted, but the president has capitulated on nearly all of his key de

Hours ahead of the Treasury deadline that could have seen the US default for the first time in its history, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Reluctantly, both Democrats and Republicans voted the legislation through, although there were significant revolts on each side. It passed by 269 to 161 votes.

It will now be voted on by the Senate, although this is largely a formality as it has a Democratic majority. The House, which since November's mid-terms has been made up of many hardline Tea Party Republicans, was the main problem. Although the bill is seen by many as a complete capitulation by the president, many Republicans are still angry that the cuts outlined in the legislation do not go far enough.

While there is a sense of relief that the crisis has been ended without a potentially catastrophic default, Democrats are understandably frustrated as they have emerged from weeks of stand-off with little to show for it. Not only has Barack Obama surrendered on most of the key points, promising more than $2tn in spending cuts over the next ten years, but because a deal was reached so close to the deadline, the bill has not undergone the normal scrutiny.

It is a significant shift in fiscal policy at a time when economic recovery is fragile. Unemployment remains above 9 per cent, growth is slowing, and there is now no scope for any economic stimulus. Democrats also fear that it is the poor who will lose the most. In one of his main surrenders, Obama has agreed not to seek extra tax revenue. Given that George Bush's tax cuts for the rich are the main cause of the deficit (see this chart), this means the deficit will stay sky-high. Democrats hope to re-open this debate at a later stage.

The sense that Obama has caved in to the unreasonable voices on the right is also a cause of frustration. Writing last night, the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman criticised Obama for refusing to consider tabling the 14th Amendment to push his version through:

Those legal options are still there. Obama can move now; and even if he eventually loses in the courts, that gives him time.

Sure, it's risky. But the whole situation is immensely risky, thanks to the extremism and bloody-mindedness of the right. There are no safe options, and trying to play it safe when there is no safety lands you, well, where Obama is right now.

While laudable in theory, Obama's wish to seek reasonable, bipartisan solutions in the most partisan, extreme era the White House has seen for decades makes him a hostage to fortune.

The immediate crisis may have been averted, but this stand-off has shown how drastically the mainstream debate has been pulled to the right. It has also given a hint of the lines along which the next election will be fought -- drastically differing views on the size and scale of the state. Obama would do well to find his voice and be more assertive by then, if he does not want to lose the support of his own party.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.