House Republicans have a problem. They have trapped themselves in a no man’s land of political hostage taking.

The GOP leadership has basically admitted they can’t really play chicken with the debt limit again, but at the same time many in the rank and file refuse to give up on the idea that voting on the limit somehow gives them leverage. As a result they are looking around for modest demands they think they can get away with even though they basically admitted they won’t ever shoot the hostage. From Politico:

Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team is looking to squeeze out of an ideologically diverse House Republican Conference anything that can pass. Ahead of a members-only, two-hour meeting next Tuesday, the top idea bouncing around GOP leadership is casually being referred to as a catch-all, kitchen sink plan. [...]

Options being floated internally include language approving the Keystone XL pipeline, slashing regulations with the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act and additional spending cuts — perhaps even a framework for tax reform.

You can’t try to take a huge hostage and only demand a modest ransom, it shows everyone you are not serious. Your only options in legislative fights are asking for either a huge demand or sneaking in a small token, but nothing in between.

If you are going to threaten default it better be for a huge and principled reason. The type of big demand you should be willing to risk not just your career over but the entire economic health of the country. The previous Republican demand for a massive reduction in government spending seemed to qualify.

On the other hand, you can also use huge must-pass bills to slip in very tiny provisions. This works only because it is often not worth the time fighting over something incredibly minor when there is a deadline. The silly “no budget, no pay” provision in the last debt limit vote is a good example.

What you can’t do is threaten to wreck the economy just to get some modest changes, like eliminating some regulation. Your base won’t rally around it. The media will mock you and no one will take your threat serious.

Unfortunately for Speaker Boehner, his members still don’t seem to get the situation they are now in. Making half-hearted threats won’t give you half leverage. It is an all or nothing game.