When it comes to negotiating an agreement to increase the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders must take into account a sizeable (and increasingly vocal) “no” caucus within their own party — just as they did with the “budget deal” reached in April.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said Wednesday that 60 or more Republicans could vote against a deal to raise the debt ceiling, roughly the same number (59) who voted against the April compromise. This dynamic has been a critical factor in the negotiations thus far — with GOP leaders repeatedly informing their Democratic counterparts that certain proposals simply do not have the votes to pass the House — and promises to keep things interesting in the weeks ahead.
The actual size and composition of the “no” caucus is hard to pin down — it depends on the exact nature of a potential deal — but most GOP insiders agree with Boehner’s assessment. Some Republicans will refuse to support a debt-limit increase no matter what. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), for example, recently said she would support a debt-limit increase only if it were tied to the complete defunding of Obamacare, a veritable impossibility. GOP sources predict that as many as 30 members could vote against a debt-ceiling increase regardless of the makeup of the deal.
The majority of hard-line opponents to a debt-limit hike, however, seem to have coalesced around the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” proposal touted by the conservative Republican Study Committee. More than 100 members signed a letter introducing the proposal, and 36 members have since signed a pledge to vote to raise the debt ceiling only if the proposal’s conditions are met. Lately, particular emphasis has been placed on the “Balance” portion of the pledge, or the passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Members fiercely lobbied party leaders at a Tuesday-morning conference meeting to push for a balanced-budget amendment in negotiations with the White House. Boehner did just that.
Many House Republicans believe a deal that includes only spending cuts, even in the range of $2–3 trillion, is insufficient. They argue that including some kind of structural reforms such as a balanced-budget amendment in a deal to raise the debt ceiling is the only way win broad support within the party. “If that structural fix was put in place, I think you’d have pretty broad support in the conference,” says Rep. Reid Ribble (R., Wis.), a freshman member of the House Budget Committee.
“We’re past the point of cuts’ flying without structural form,” freshman representative Joe Walsh (R., Ill.) tells National Review Online. “I don’t think there’s another way to pass something in the House.” Walsh co-sponsored the balanced-budget-amendment legislation that the House is set to vote on later this month. He credits the “enormous pressure” from freshman and conservative members with convincing GOP leaders to “begrudgingly” embrace his legislation and call for a vote.
“A lot of members have put their name on the line and said that’s the right way forward,” says Rep. Tom Graves (R., Ga.). “This Congress is going to be defined by the actions of the next couple of weeks, and my hope is that how America looks back on the 112th Congress will be that it was the Congress that was willing to offer a balanced-budget amendment.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) warns that there is still “great concern” among members who felt extremely let down by the budget deal negotiated in April, which turned out to be full of phony spending cuts and gimmicks. He said the bad taste left over from that deal could make members more hesitant to support a deal negotiated with the White House. “I think there’s a general belief that we learn from our mistakes,” he says.
Interestingly, only 27 of 87 freshmen voted against the April deal. It is not surprising that more are now joining the hard-line opposition. Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), for example, supported the budget deal, but has recently signed the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge. “Among the freshmen and among most of the people in our conference, the conversation is that spending cuts [alone] do not help us solve the problem,” Lankford tells NRO. “The real issue is, how do we solve the problem, how do we not have to do this forever?”
One well-placed GOP aide says a deal that includes “real cuts” and “a good balanced-budget amendment” could bring almost every Republican on board with a debt increase. If not? Beware. Representative Walsh says anything less could produce “even more than 60” GOP defections.
For the GOP leadership, a crucial task will be to bring along enough Democrats to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass a balanced-budget amendment. Doing so would put enormous pressure on the White House in the negotiations, even if the measure is dead on arrival in the Senate, as many believe.
Rep. Bill Flores (R., Texas), another freshman who supported the April budget deal but has now signed on to “Cut, Cap and Balance,” thinks party leaders will find a way forward. “They understand what it’s going to take to get the Republican conference to vote for a deal,” he says. “I feel fairly confident that they will not agree to anything where they know they can’t deliver the votes.”
“Currently, there is not a single debt-limit proposal that can pass the House of Representatives,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said in a statement Wednesday urging the president to put a proposal in writing. At this point, one has to wonder if there is any proposal that could pass the House. Tellingly, the conversation has shifted: It’s no longer about what kind of deal would be acceptable, but about what happens if the debt ceiling isn’t raised by the administration’s August 2 deadline. On Wednesday, Reps. Bachmann, Steve King (R., Iowa), and Louie Gohmert (R., Texas) unveiled legislation to prioritize payments to members of the military and to paying interest on the federal debt to ensure the nation does not default.
And unless things change dramatically in the coming days and weeks, there could very well be no deal for the “no” caucus to oppose.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.