Sen. Mike Lee of Utah needs a little help from his friends.
Lee, a freshman tea-party leader, is pleased that every Senate Republican backs his balanced-budget amendment. But as the federal government approaches its debt limit, he warns that the press-conference bloc is not enough.
In a letter last week, Lee urged colleagues to play hardball on the amendment. “Unless or until that measure passes both houses of Congress,” he wrote, Republicans should “vigorously oppose any attempts to raise the debt ceiling.” Six GOP senators — Jim DeMint (S.C.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Jim Risch (Idaho), and Richard Shelby (Ala.) — signed on.
Lee, in an interview with National Review Online, pledges to intensify his efforts. Republicans, he argues, cannot simply posture as fiscal hawks; they must use the debt-limit extension as an opportunity to tie the grabby hands of Congress.
“I would like to see a scenario in which Republicans in both houses draw a line in the sand,” Lee says as we talk in his Capitol Hill office. “If Democrats do not give us the supermajorities we need in both houses to pass the balanced-budget amendment, we are not going to even come to the table. It is a condition precedent.”
Lee acknowledges that passage will be an uphill struggle, especially as Democrats and the press chatter about the dangers of defaulting on fiscal obligations. But he firmly believes that the GOP can hold the line and win the argument.
“We are always hearing the Left, from the political establishment, that it would be catastrophic if we do not raise the debt limit,” Lee sighs. “I don’t mean to minimize the significance of that happening; it would create a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear. But we have to remember that there are at least equal corresponding risks of raising it without putting anything else in place.”
Lee’s fight may be boosted by the incipient GOP presidential primary. One contender, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, has used the party’s debt-limit strategy as a test of GOP grit. “I really hope they don’t just set some vague targets and call it good and move on,” he said at a recent breakfast with reporters. “I hope and believe that they will stand tough on this debt-ceiling vote and use that as a way to force real meaningful and structural change.”
Senator DeMint, a conservative kingmaker, agrees. As Slate reports, DeMint told reporters at the first presidential debate late last week that he would not endorse any candidate who does not support a balanced-budget amendment as part of a debt-ceiling increase.
Lee sees the political tides moving toward him. House conservatives, such those in the Republican Study Committee, are planning to make a similar push. Lee says that the debate within GOP circles is far from over, and that the hardest part is reassuring nervous members.
As he makes his case around the Capitol’s marble halls, Lee underscores that a debt showdown now would be preferable to a debt crisis later.
“The kinds of cuts that would inevitably become necessary if we entered into a Greece-like downward spiral, a full-blown debt crisis, would really affect the poor more severely than anyone,” Lee says. “It would require such an immediate, severe contraction of federal spending.”
Lee’s dogged pursuit of a balanced-budget amendment, however, faces hurdles inside the Senate GOP conference, where all senators support the proposal, but many are wary of using it as a bargaining chip.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) recently proposed bipartisan legislation to cap federal spending levels at 20.6 percent of GDP. They are looking to tether their bill to the debt-ceiling vote, giving members of both parties another pinched-fist option.
Lee’s constitutional amendment, which restricts spending to 18 percent of GDP, suddenly has competition. Lee is adamant that his amendment must be the GOP’s condition for any debt-limit increase. “I am certain that it needs to be this,” he says.
While Lee applauds Corker’s work, he worries that statutory spending caps could be easily discarded in coming years, whereas a constitutional amendment would be arduous to pass but ultimately more effective. “You cannot bind Congress, statutorily, in a way that will survive for the long haul,” he says. “Congress could just repeal the parts that it finds the most onerous.”
Corker’s bill, Lee notes, is modeled after the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985. “We have to remember that Gramm-Rudman-Hollings didn’t make it more than about five years before Congress essentially repealed it, watering it down, and then it eventually fell off of the map,” he says. “This is the wrong entrée into a debt-ceiling increase because it is not sufficiently permanent.”
Lee’s camp is ready to stand with him as the Senate GOP mulls its path forward. “I have always thought that if the debt ceiling comes up, we should use the vote as leverage to try to get some significant budgetary reform,” says Senator Paul. “To me, that would be an operative plan for balancing the budget in a definitive amount of time, or a balanced-budget amendment and actually passing it.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.