At a closed-door conference meeting this morning, Speaker John Boehner told House Republicans that GOP leaders and the White House remain poles apart as the debt-ceiling deadline looms. “It’s like we are leaders from two different planets who don’t understand each other,” he said, to chuckles.
Boehner, according to sources who were inside of the room, emphasized that moving forward, “We have to make tough decisions to save our country, so get ready to do it.” Others in the GOP leadership, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, reiterated that message, telling members that as the debt-limit impasse continues, Republicans will hustle next week to pass “cut, cap, and balance,” a fiscal-reform package sponsored by the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a leading conservative caucus.
Under the “cut, cap, and balance” legislation, Congress would agree to increase the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion (the amount requested by President Obama to get him through the 2012 election), but only if a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution were approved by two-thirds majorities in both houses and sent to the states for ratification. In addition, the plan calls for significant spending cuts to next year’s budget — more than $100 billion — and a firm cap on federal spending at 18.5 percent of GDP.
Cantor also told the conference about his exchange with President Obama on Wednesday, when the president became agitated about Cantor’s pushing for a short-term extension, one that would be laden with spending cuts. Cantor told Republicans that Obama’s entire approach was political, and that they should read little more into the heated press reports. He said that Obama’s position appears to be based upon his refusal to agree to anything that does not go through the end of next year’s presidential campaign.
In terms of floor strategy, House GOP leaders said the RSC plan will probably come first; then, pending passage, Republicans will move to consider a related balanced-budget amendment — one that they hope will attract Democrats, whose votes would be needed to pass the amendment should “cut, cap, and balance” find itself curbed in the Senate, where Democrats still hold control.
Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Boehner announced as much, telling reporters that “time and again Republicans have offered serious proposals to cut spending and address these issues, and I think it’s time for the Democrats to get serious as well.” Looking ahead, he said that he does not want to “preclude any chance of coming to an agreement,” but with Democrats “unwilling to put a real plan on the table,” he was ready to take action unilaterally.
Leaving the meeting, House Republicans were mostly calm and supportive of their leadership, happily munching bagels and sipping coffee. The conference, many said, was in relatively good spirits, hopeful that Boehner and Cantor would be able to craft a favorable agreement. A senior House GOP aide tells us that the leaders went into the meeting with an open mind, looking both to recap the negotiations and to rally members to get informed and be enthusiastic for next week’s debate, when the clamor for a deal will reach a fever pitch in the mainstream press.
“There were more calls for unity, smiles, but there was not a push for everyone to start getting behind something, to get 218 votes together,” one Republican recounted to us as he strolled back to his office. “All of the whip stuff will happen later. This was about coming together, seeing where we are, and planning for next week. The leaders spoke; Jim Jordan [RSC chairman] spoke; it was pretty low-key.”
Still, a couple of members told us that some tension flared up at the beginning of the meeting when Jerome Powell, who was a Treasury Department official in the George H. W. Bush administration, made a presentation about the consequences of failing to extend the debt ceiling past August 2. “It is my responsibility, as conference chairman to arm them with the best facts,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) as he walked in.
“It was a just-the-facts slideshow, and that was good to see,” one House conservative tells us. “But things got a little testy when he started to talk, since we wondered what leadership was really trying to tell us, that maybe they were trying to scare us.” He takes care to add, however, that, as the discussion evolved, it “became clear that Boehner and the others were just trying to bring everyone up to speed, so we can speak about what would happen in that situation — nothing more.”
As for the McConnell plan – a legislative maneuver proposed by the Senate Republican leader that would enable President Obama to raise the debt ceiling via a presidential veto — House Republicans remain uneasy about it. Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.), a high-profile freshman, spoke for many when he told reporters, “That dog won’t hunt” as he entered the conference. But for the moment, no decision on that front has been made. At his morning press conference, Boehner refused to rule it out. “We are far from the time for a last-ditch effort,” he said.
Next week, House GOP aides tell us Republicans will be focused on the “cut, cap, and balance” rollout, and then on the balanced-budget amendment. They will largely let Boehner continue to push for cuts as members make a vocal case for fiscal discipline on the House floor. “There really are two people in this conversation, two different voices,” says freshman representative James Lankford (R., Okla.). “One that thinks the crisis is the impending vote and one that thinks the crisis is the debt.” Lankford hopes that in coming days Republicans can help push Democrats to agree to “a solution, not just a vote.”
Others are looking for a brawl. As he left the Capitol basement, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) told reporters that as the countdown continues, he wants to make sure that Obama does not dictate the terms of debate. “Ultimately, [the federal government] will distribute those checks and they will clear,” he says, swatting off default fears. “We’re talking about making sure the president’s attempt to shut down the government on August 2 does not happen.”
That said, most members are open to raising the debt limit, aides say — as long as they can go back to their districts with, as one staffer puts it, “concrete, heavy blocks of legislation.” Come late July, another aide explains, Republicans want to be able to tell their constituents that they did all they could to enact conservative reforms in a divided government. On Capitol Hill, at least, that pressure appears to be as strong as the pressure for Boehner and Obama to cut a deal.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles is a Franklin fellow.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.