As Speaker John Boehner opened up a closed-door meeting with House Republicans in the Capitol basement, he departed from his prepared remarks to give his colleagues a sense of why he got involved in politics in the first place.
“I didn’t leave my business in Ohio just to be a congressmen,” he told them, “and I didn’t run for speaker so I could have a big office.”
The plan that Majority Leader Eric Cantor proceeded to unveil will give the GOP its chance at a fight. The first round, a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government that will come to the House floor on Friday, will also defund Obamacare and include language to prioritize how incoming tax revenue will be spent in the event the debt ceiling is not raised.
That will give Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and others a chance to wage the fight over Obamacare in the upper chamber.
But given that Majority Leader Harry Reid rules the Senate, it is unlikely to bear fruit in the way of significant concessions on Obamacare. Instead, the push to defund Obamacare will be transferred to negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling, which must be raised around the middle of October.
“We go right to the debt-ceiling fight, and that’s where the real battle is, we feel,” said Representative John Fleming. “It’s kind of like the follow-up plan, assuming that [the CR] fails. . . . The real fight will be on the debt ceiling.”
House budget chairman Paul Ryan also urged colleagues to wage the more serious fight over the debt ceiling. “We have to stay on the right side of public opinion,” he told his colleagues. “Shutting down the government puts us on the wrong side. The fight is on the debt limit.”
In exchange for a debt-ceiling increase, Cantor told colleagues, the GOP will issue a litany of demands, including a one-year delay of Obamacare, construction of the Keystone pipeline, an anti-regulatory bill called the REINS Act, and other spending reforms. The exact combination will be negotiated with President Obama and Reid.
Walking out of the meeting, many of the conservative hardliners were pleased.
“I liked everything I heard,” said Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, saying that Republicans in the meeting showed “as much unity as I’ve seen on this topic in a long, long time. It looks like they did exactly what we would want them to do.”
“All the momentum is in our direction. Warren Buffett said yesterday, ‘Scrap the bill.’ The AFL-CIO said last week, ‘Repeal the bill if you’re not going to fix it.’ Everyone knows this thing isn’t ready. Everyone knows,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former Republican Study Committee chairman, referring to the health-care law.
“Heck yeah!” Jordan said when asked if the new plan increases the GOP’s leverage.
Representative Tom Graves of Georgia, who had garnered the support of nearly a third of the conference with an alternative plan to Cantor’s original CR bill, said he supported the approach as well.
A few rumblings of dissent came from Representative Thomas Massie, a libertarian-leaning freshman from Kentucky, and from a senior Republican member close to leadership.
Massie said Cantor’s plan for a “kitchen sink” approach to the debt ceiling lacked simplicity. “I think they’re convoluting this with way too many issues. It was a lot simpler with the Graves bill. We promised stability and fairness. There were only two things in the Graves bill we needed to explain. Now we’ve got a multipronged, five-issue approach,” he said.
The Republican congressman, reflecting deep currents of anger at the hardliners who forced leadership to abandon the original Cantor plan, panned the new approach as bound to fail.
“We’re in a competition now for who has the worst strategic capability in this town. It’s a race between Obama’s Syria policy and our CR policy,” the lawmaker told me. “For us to think we’re gonna win on a shutdown is crazy,” he added, saying that the debt ceiling will be the more substantive fight — and one on more favorable ground.
One private calculation of Republicans pushing to focus on the debt ceiling is that Obama might embrace a shutdown as a short-lived inconvenience for the country that would be likely to gravely damage Republicans’ public image. On the other hand, the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling could be calamitous.
“What the conservatives don’t understand is that a shutdown is terrible for Republicans, but default is terrible for everyone,” a GOP aide said.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.