A growing army of Republicans wants to push the debt showdown past the August 2 deadline.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) are leading the charge in their respective chambers. They both tell National Review Online that if Republicans hold firm, President Obama and Senate Democrats will buckle and pass a balanced-budget amendment.
Jordan, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which authored “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” a fiscal-reform package that passed the House earlier this week, says that his group is ready to dig in. He acknowledges that two other plans — the one proposed by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), and the one proposed by the bipartisan “Gang of Six” — are gaining steam. Yet as the clock ticks, he is unwilling to deal — or accept doomsday warnings.
“What is irrational about saying that we need to cut spending? What is irrational about saying we need to limit the size of government?” Jordan asks. “There is nothing irrational about that. We have to make the case. You make the case by going to the American people, you let that build, and then you can get Democratic support for something.”
Jordan notes that 59 Republicans voted against the spending deal brokered by Speaker John Boehner and President Obama in April. If a debt-limit solution without a balanced-budget amendment is proffered, that same bloc, he says, will rally in opposition. “Potentially, I think there could be that many or a lot more,” he says. “We are trying to build a big number.”
Rep. Joe Walsh (R., Ill.), one of 20 freshmen to vote against the spring spending compromise, tells NRO that disappointment over that deal weighs heavily on those who opposed it and on many who were reluctant supporters. “It left a sour taste in our mouth,” he says. “We believe that we really let the American people down.” For conservatives, he says, passing “Cut, Cap, and Balance” was an attempt to win back the public’s trust.
Walsh has gathered more than 90 signatures on a letter to House GOP leadership urging them not to bring the McConnell plan to a vote, which seems to be having an impact. Walsh tells NRO that Republican and Democratic Senate staffers have been calling his office to gauge the level of opposition to the plan, which appears to be the Senate’s preferred option. “The rank and file, through the letter, is making that clear that it is not going anywhere in the House,” he says.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are urging Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to take up “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” or as they’ve taken to calling it, the “Gang of 234” proposal, after the number of votes the plan received in the lower chamber.
In the Senate, DeMint is also counting noses, hoping to stir an eleventh-hour movement. Conservative voters, he says, will lose faith in the party if it backs the “Gang” plan and does not fight for a balanced-budget amendment. “Frankly, I believe if we had 41 Republicans who were willing to go past August 2, these things would happen in a hurry,” he says. “I don’t know that we do, but that is the kind of approach we need, and the approach we should have had all along.”
DeMint, who is working closely with Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), sees hope for a last-minute standoff, even as many of his GOP colleagues flock to the “Gang,” which is led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), a respected fiscal hawk. So far, he can count two established Senate dealmakers, Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), as allies.
Graham, for instance, attended a closed-door confab with DeMint and conservative activists on Tuesday, urging the various groups to push Republicans to hold. He told the audience that if Republicans did not battle for a balanced-budget amendment in the summer heat, the chances for its passage would quickly wilt. Waiting until August 3, he argued, would give the GOP sufficient leverage. Hatch, for his part, tells NRO that he sees “real problems” with the “Gang” framework and calls “Cut, Cap, and Balance” his preferred path ahead.
Republican leaders, however, though supportive of “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” do not appear to have the same appetite for an early-August clash. Obama met with House GOP leaders Wednesday night, reportedly to consider passing a short-term debt-limit extension as details of a debt-reduction agreement are brokered. “I’m not going to give up hope on ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance,’ but I do think it’s responsible for us to look at what Plan B would look like,” Boehner said at a press conference earlier this week. “There are a lot of options available to us.”
Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), a member of the GOP brass who is close to House conservatives, tells NRO that any short-term extension would not be acceptable. “Our path ahead remains ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance.’ That is our short-term, mid-term, and long-term solution,” he says. “There are many who believe that the Senate cannot act that quickly, now that the ball is in their court, and are looking to a potential short-term plug. At this point, that is a nonstarter for us in the House.”
Freshman representative Bill Flores (R., Texas) agrees. He is opposed to a short-term extension unless a balanced-budget amendment is assuredly in the works. “If I had to choose between having some sort of calamity on August 2, but I felt that buying a few weeks of time was going to get the right deal done, I’d be willing to look at that,” he says. “We need to take advantage of this situation and make fundamental changes to the federal government,” he says.
Indeed, in the House, the willingness to take the debate past August 2 runs deep, and is not limited to backbench freshmen. Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, dismisses the deadline as “artificial” and “created by the president for political drama.” Republicans have already done their jobs, Issa says, and now President Obama has two options: He can sign a short-term increase to the debt ceiling through the end of the fiscal year (September 30), or he can prioritize federal spending to avoid default.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), a leading presidential contender, has long insisted that she wouldn’t vote for a debt-ceiling increase under any circumstances. She has also pushed back against warnings of an imminent default. In recent days, while she has softened her stance slightly — saying she’d support a debt increase if the new health-care law were repealed in its entirety — Bachmann was one of nine Republicans to vote against “Cut, Cap, and Balance” because it allows for a $2.4 trillion debt increase if a balanced-budget amendment is passed by both chambers.
Conservative hardliners are being spurred on by dozens of outside groups. Both the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which were instrumental in the push for “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” have gone so far as to announce that they would publicly score whether Republicans signed Walsh’s letter.“There’s really nothing to talk about until the president puts out a plan,” says Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. “If he doesn’t want to do that, he should be prepared to live under a balanced budget as of August 2.”
On Fox Business yesterday, Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks said that “the Republicans’ ability to actually negotiate real spending cuts really comes into play on August 3, the day after the so-called end of the world happens.” Still, there are some who strike a more tempered tone. Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), who voted for the Boehner-Obama spending deal but is currently one of 37 members who has signed a pledge promising not to raise the debt ceiling absent the full enactment of “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” tells NRO that House Republicans have no plans to barrel past the August 2 deadline. “There’s not any enthusiasm to just ignore that date,” he says. “We understand that date is significant, and we’ve got to be able to pay our bills.”
But as August 2 approaches, DeMint, Jordan, and their fellow conservatives aren’t daunted. “I can tell you this, the tide of history is moving here,” Walsh says. “I don’t think our leadership can stop it, I don’t think Harry Reid can, and I know Barack Obama can’t.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.