As Senate leaders Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) iron out the details of a controversial plan to raise the debt ceiling, House conservatives are already gearing up to reject it en masse. House GOP leaders, however, have refused to rule out the McConnell option.
“I think there probably is a showdown coming,” Rep. Joe Walsh (R., Ill.) tells National Review Online. “There is a strong contingent in the House that believes this country needs to have a fight over this immoral debt we’re placing on the backs of our kids and grandkids. We avoided that fight over the CR. The feeling now is, ‘Let’s have that showdown now, this is good for us.’”
Republican leaders have called a vote this week on a conservative proposal to raise the debt — “Cut, Cap, and Balance” — but Walsh questions the earnestness of that decision. He suspects the move was “just a bone being thrown to House Republican rank and file,” when the real plan is to move forward with some version of the McConnell proposal, despite “real antagonism” for the proposal within the caucus.
The plan initially put forward by McConnell would effectively give President Obama what he wants: the authority to request a $2.4 trillion debt increase, which is enough to get him through the 2012 election. In exchange, Republicans could pass “resolutions of disapproval” against the president’s request, but ultimately could do nothing to prevent it from being enacted. In theory, these resolutions would give them political cover. The proposal was met with widespread condemnation by the conservative Right. “There is no difference between the McConnell plan and a clean debt-limit increase,” says Heritage Action CEO Michael A. Needham. “It’s an absolute non-starter.”
However, several GOP sources acknowledge that the plan Reid and McConnell ultimately come up with will be the only realistic option at this point. But the question remains — how to get it through the House? As it stands, an answer is hard to come by. “It’s like a foreign country to me,” says one senior GOP Senate aide. “I really don’t know what they need.”
In an effort to make McConnell’s plan somewhat more palatable to House Republicans, Senate leaders are discussing a spending-cut package in the range of $1.5 trillion and the creation of a commission charged with drafting a non-amendable, filibuster-proof deficit plan to be sent to Congress by the end of the year. The final plan could even allow for the House to determine the makeup of the spending-cuts package. But even then, conservative members are unlikely to budge.
So far, it seems as if nothing will satisfy the House, the Senate, and the president. “Conservatives are demanding a solution that actually fixes our debt problem,” says one GOP aide. “So far, ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’ is the only plan that qualifies.” Thirty-seven GOP members have even signed pledges promising not to support a debt increase absent the full enactment of “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” But that plan would certainly be defeated in the Senate — and President Obama on Monday said he would veto the legislation.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) lamented that this hard-line “no” caucus was weakening the GOP’s ability to negotiate for spending cuts. “The debt limit is an opportunity to cut spending,” Ryan told National Review Online. “We cannot have irrational expectations when we control one-half of one-third of the government.”
“It’s certainly not helpful,” one Republican member, speaking on background, concedes to NRO. “That said, I think some of these reports from Moody’s and S&P are causing some to reconsider. Default is not an option.”
But House conservatives, still reeling from the disappointing continuing-resolution agreement in April, have vowed to take a stand this time around. “The CR debate left a real sour taste in the mouths of a lot of us, and we do not want to go down that road again,” Walsh says. “If we blink and compromise a little too much and cave, I believe it’s going to have huge ramifications for Republicans in 2012.”
In fact, Walsh and other conservative members of the caucus aren’t going to let that happen on their watch. Walsh has drafted a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) urging him not to bring the McConnell plan up for a vote in the House because it would be “an abdication of our leadership in Congress.” He hopes to gather “at least 100” signatures by the end of the day.
Perhaps the only certainty going forward is that any proposal will require a substantial amount of Democratic support to pass. So it’s not surprising that Boehner rounded out a busy day last Friday with an under-the-radar meeting with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). One aide says Obama should be able to convince a lot of House Democrats to support a deal if needed. Still, given the opposition within his caucus, and the still-simmering fallout from the CR, it is hard to see how Boehner can politically survive another mass conservative defection.
The speaker has referred to the McConnell plan as a “last-ditch effort” that “might look pretty good a couple of weeks from now” if no other agreement is reached. But at the moment, he insists, “We’re far from the time for a last-ditch effort.”
President Obama declared a July 22 deadline by which he wants Congress to reach a deal, and it was revealed on Monday that he held a covert meeting with Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) over the weekend. GOP House aides concede that passing any version of the McConnell plan will be extremely difficult, and insist that “Cut, Cap, and Balance” is their sole priority this week.
But once that vote has been cast, how does this all play out? NRO posed the question to a senior House GOP aide. The response: “I don’t know.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.