House Speaker John Boehner is, once again, in a tough spot.
Facing a possible default on the nation’s loans if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, the Ohio Republican must also answer to a loud conservative base that demands unprecedented spending cuts in return for their support. As the federal government’s debt creeps closer to its $14.2 trillion ceiling, Boehner will lead a balancing act in which the nation’s full faith and credit — and fiscal future — could hinge on his performance.
Conservatives are generally divided into two camps on the debt ceiling vote: On one end, there’s the “hell no” caucus, consisting mostly of state Tea Party activists and congressional freshmen who campaigned on the promise that they would never vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstance.
Second, there’s a substantial group of Republicans — consisting of seasoned House and Senate Republicans and members of leadership — who have voted for debt limit increases in the past but say they won’t support it again unless there are “serious” cuts and institutional changes to the way Congress spends money.
Democrats are also part of the equation, some who voted against raising the debt ceiling while George Bush was president, but now say it’s imperative to raise it and would do it tomorrow if Republicans would let them.
Of those groups, the “hell no” caucus has largely been ruled out. Boehner and the GOP must find a way to raise the cap to avoid a default while securing budget cuts so the Tea Party doesn’t run them out of town.
For conservative activists, however, there is little agreement as to how the party should proceed. Demand it not be raised at all, or raise it with cuts?
“[We] have people in both camps,” said James Valvo, director of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, a group that mobilizes and organizes Tea Party rallies across the country. “I’m confident that the debt ceiling will not be raised unless there is something meaningful attached to it.”
But that word — “meaningful” — is yet to be defined, and there are lots of ideas floating around as to how to accomplish them.
Some, including freshman Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and the free-market group Club for Growth (CFG), are demanding a Balanced Budget Amendment in exchange for any raise in the debt ceiling. “We are recommending that all Members of Congress vote ‘NO’ on increasing the debt limit unless they pass a balanced budget amendment,” a recent email sent out to CFG supporters read.
The proposal is not without problems. Not counting the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has only been amended 17 times since the nation’s founding and the process requires far more legwork than a typical bill. Even if Senate Democrats and the President Obama agreed to go along with the amendment as part of the deal, it still would require approval from three-fourths of the state legislatures, making its chances for success ambiguous from the start. Further, amendments take time. Past amendments have taken years to process, which would make a deal struck in the eleventh hour (as Congress is known to do) a tough time to secure with certainty something that ultimately is out of Washington’s hands.
The budget proposed by Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan that passed in the House last week also outlines a plan to raise the debt ceiling over the next decade, but ties it to steep cuts. (In a way, most House Republicans already voted to raise the debt ceiling with their show of support for Ryan’s budget.) Senate Democrats have since called Ryan’s plan a “non-starter.”
Regardless of what Congress ultimately agrees to, Republican leaders have made it clear that they are ruling out a “clean” vote — one with no strings attached — entirely.
“Republicans will not agree to raise the debt limit without binding budget reforms and immediate spending cuts that will guarantee we don’t continue these bad spending practices in the future,” Cantor said in a statement Thursday.
Those words could come back to haunt the GOP if the party’s conservative base doesn’t think the final result passes muster. The deal passed earlier this month to cut $40 billion from current spending levels left many small-government activists screaming that the Republicans weren’t demanding enough.
“We’re going to give the Republicans a second chance,” said Michael Needham, chief executive officer for the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “I think there is no way the Republicans don’t stay strong on this.” If they don’t, he said, “there’s going to be a lot of disappointed people.”
“Disappointed” is putting it mildly, especially for conservatives outside of Washington, many who are still sore about the spending deal and put little trust in Beltway Republicans to secure the level of cuts they think the budget requires to stabilize.
“If the Republican Party will not aggressively fight for real cuts and real reform in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, if at all, it very much will be time for a third party in this country,” wrote conservative commentator Erick Erickson on RedState.com.
For other activists, especially ones in the state-based Tea Party groups, any deal struck that results in a raise of the debt ceiling will be enough to call for Boehner’s head in 2012.
“I don’t know that there’s any conditions out there that they can create to get us to support [a debt ceiling increase],” said Tea Party Nation Founder Judson Phillips. “Our congressmen are out there are like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on Rodeo Boulevard with an Am-Ex Black card. They just don’t see a credit limit and see any reason to stop spending.”
Robert Kilmarx, director of the Tennessee Tea Party, said his group and others around the country are planning a campaign to pressure GOP lawmakers to oppose the debt ceiling under any circumstances.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want to see any strings attached,” Kilmarx said. “We’re going to pressure them.”
Disappointed with the level of spending cuts secured in the most recent deal made with Democrats to fund the government, these leaders within the decentralized Tea Party movement are waiting for Boehner’s next move, but they don’t expect much. On top of their principled stand against raising the debt limit regardless of the consequences, they frankly just don’t trust the GOP leadership to secure a good deal.
“Could there be some good strings that would be attached that might make it a power palatable deal? Yeah there could be,” Phillips said. “I just simply have no confidence that Boehner would do it.”
One thing Boehner and the Republican leadership can count on: They’re being watched.
“We’re just making notes and keeping tally sheets,” Kilmarx said. “I don’t like to get in any position of threatening to primary for every little thing that comes up, but at the end of the day, come 2012 we’re going to look at our scorecard.”