The 2010 midterms were a windfall for Republican candidates stressing the need to seriously tackle runaway federal spending and debt. In the coming months they will face their first significant test, when they are asked to raise the national debt ceiling, currently set at $14.3 trillion. One might expect that most Republicans, and especially the freshman members, would be lining up in firm opposition. Far from it.
In fact, the loudest (and, of late, the only) voices of opposition to a debt increase belong to old hands like Reps. Ron Paul (R., Texas) and Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.). Both have vigorously argued their case in the media — Bachmann is asking people to sign an online petition to urge their representatives not to increase the debt limit. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) has also weighed in, calling on Republicans to “resist” raising the debt ceiling but stopping short of outright opposition.
Of course, it’s not as if Republicans intended to hand President Obama a free pass on raising the debt. The growing consensus within the GOP is to seek a trade-off — increasing the debt ceiling in exchange for significant spending cuts. Some have pressed for structural reforms such as a balanced-budget amendment or far-reaching entitlement reform, but few have been willing to suggest that refusing a debt increase is a viable option. As Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) told a forum at the National Press Club: “You can’t not raise the debt ceiling. . . . Just refusing to vote for it is not a strategy.”
The White House certainly agrees. Administration officials have been adamantly warning of “catastrophic” consequences if the debt limit is not raised. And many Republicans concede that the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid the fiscal crisis that would inevitably result if the United States were to default.
Even prominent fiscal hawks like Reps. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), all of whom voted against the lame-duck tax deal brokered by Senate Republicans and the White House, have acknowledged the need to increase the ceiling and their willingness to deal. “I think you’ve got to raise it,” Flake said in a recent interview outside the House chamber. “But it has to be in tandem with some serious spending cuts.”
GOP freshmen who have spoken out have tended toward adopting the consensus position. Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.) says he’ll support a debt-limit increase, but only if Democrats agree to cap spending and reform entitlements. “It won’t be a blank check,” he says. Freshman senators Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah), who along with West are widely popular within the Tea Party, have recently signaled they might be open to a deal.
“I am instinctively and passionately opposed to raising the debt ceiling,” Lee tells National Review Online. “I’m not sure I can stomach it one way or the other.” But Lee says he could consider doing so if the vote was part of a deal that included both massive spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment. Spending cuts alone, he insists, would not suffice. And while he finds the current GOP consensus to be a bit soft on this point, he adds: “I think that’s about to change.”
Interestingly, despite warnings of an economic Armageddon, it appears that the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to any increase in the debt ceiling. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on January 12 found that 71 percent oppose raising the debt limit, while only 18 percent support it. Not surprisingly, opposition is even more intense among Tea Party supporters, who were instrumental in electing more than 60 new Republican members to the 112th Congress.
Tea Party Patriots, a leading organization affiliated with the movement, recently surveyed its members and found that 94 percent opposed an increase in the debt ceiling. That said, TPP co-founder and national coordinator Mark Meckler suggests that the opposition isn’t set in stone. “[They’d] be a lot more amenable to a debt-ceiling increase if they get some radical reforms on spending,” he said. “We’ve seen too much symbolism in the past, so we’d like to see something substantive.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, tells National Review Online that while he doesn’t agree with those who would refuse to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, he finds such opposition “useful” in terms of creating political leverage. But now, apart from Paul and Bachmann, firm opponents are hard to come by. And Paul thinks most GOP freshmen will end up voting yes. “I [expect] they’re going to be talked into it — the majority will be talked into it — because they are going to get some promise they are going to cut back,” he said in an interview on Fox Business Network.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, House Democrats have begun to toy with the idea of “playing chicken” with the debt. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) recently told The Hill that his colleagues in the House, fresh in the minority, could withhold support for a debt increase and force Republicans to take the plunge. “It is up to the majority to get this bill through,” he said. “They can’t duck the responsibility.”
Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), was not impressed. “In light of the flip-flops by President Obama, [Senate majority] leader [Harry] Reid, and [minority] whip [Steny] Hoyer on the debt ceiling over the years, expecting a serious position from their party is probably a futile pursuit,” he said in a statement. “Most people aren’t going to stand for an increase unless it is accompanied by legitimate actions to cut spending and stop piling debt upon the next generation.”
A Senior GOP Senate aide tells National Review Online that Republicans are in the process of negotiating with the White House, with both sides hopeful they can reach an agreement in time for President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 25. But if House Republicans don’t like what they hear, Paul and Bachmann might suddenly find themselves not so isolated. That’s when things could get interesting.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.