Politics & Policy

DeMint on the Debt Ceiling

Did Senate Republican leaders bungle the issue?

Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), a leading conservative on Capitol Hill, tells National Review Online that Senate GOP brass have bungled the debt-limit negotiations.

Republican senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, is part of the problem, DeMint says. Instead of enabling conservatives to propose their solutions early on, McConnell made them wait until the Biden debt-reduction talks collapsed, leaving little time to rally behind counterproposals.

DeMint wishes that McConnell had encouraged conservatives to engage the public months ago. As Republicans sat on their hands, the chances for the best possible outcome decreased, DeMint feels. “McConnell was convinced that House Republicans could not pass a plan. He felt like he needed to propose a plan,” DeMint says. “But he did this after we all had been told, for months, that we should not propose a plan during the Biden talks.”

“Early on, Republican leaders in the House and Senate also said that we have to raise the debt limit,” DeMint says. “Unfortunately, we showed our hand.” Now, he says, “Republicans have our backs against the walls.”

“When I spoke to the conference months ago, I told my colleagues that the most important part of negotiations is when you put your proposal on the table,” DeMint says. But that never happened. The “difference in the sense of urgency among Senate Republicans,” he says, is troublesome.

The House will take up “Cut, Cap and Balance,” a Republican Study Committee proposal, on Tuesday. DeMint hopes that it will pass. Yet he is worried about the legislation’s chances on the Senate floor.

“In the Senate, I fear that we will not see a full-fledged effort to pass something that will cut spending, cap it over ten years, and send a balanced-budget amendment to the states,” DeMint says. “But I am not ready to accept that.”

In coming days, DeMint pledges to fight for the RSC plan and a balanced-budget amendment to be passed in the Senate. “Holding firm,” he says, is the party’s best chance of besting President Obama in the negotiations.

“Frankly, I believe if we had 41 Republicans who were willing to go past August 2, these things would happen in a hurry,” DeMint 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 is frustrated with Republicans who think that they can push for a balanced-budget amendment, and then, should it fail, scurry to support a contingency plan that accomplishes little of what conservatives have been pushing for.

The McConnell plan, which would enable the president to raise the debt ceiling by veto, is “smoke and mirrors,” DeMint says. Senate Republicans, he adds, know this and should not rest easy if they support the maneuver. While he is not ready to say that McConnell-plan backers deserve primary challengers, he will say that such a vote would be “horrifying” and cause for future political headaches.

“I don’t think there is room in Washington for people who don’t think we need to balance our budgets,” DeMint says. “To those who think we should do this maneuver, and then somehow think you can keep your hands clean, that is the old Washington Republican way — and people don’t like it.”

“Some of us feel like we cannot push the envelope further on the debt. We have been told too many times that we will get some reforms, that we will cut, only to be asked to raise the ceiling again,” he says. “It’s time to draw the line in the sand.”

If Republicans “cave,” DeMint says, and fail to pass a balanced-budget amendment through both chambers of Congress, the future of the party will be in peril.

“If Republicans do not show the political will to stop the spending, and use the debt limit to make our case, the party is gone,” DeMint warns. “It’s not a matter of partisan politics. This is a point in our history where have to do something.”

As the clock ticks, DeMint hopes that Republicans will stand with him, voting against any debt-limit extension deal that does not include a balanced-budget amendment. “If we pass the McConnell plan, people are not going to buy that,” he says. “Americans are not stupid.”

“At some point in the game, every player has to look across the table, look into your opponent’s eyes, and see if you should call his bluff. Right now, it is time to call Obama’s bluff,” DeMint says.

Beyond the politics, however, DeMint emphasizes that the “unreasonable” thing would be to raise the debt ceiling without balancing the budget. Obama’s finger-pointing, he says, should not carry weight in the GOP cloakroom if Republicans are as dedicated to fiscal reform as they claim to be.

“We probably wouldn’t win the headline battle in August, but if we held the line until we got something that was credible, we would win the argument and solve the problem,” DeMint says. “The credit-rating agencies want to see credible reforms, not just an increase in the debt limit.”

If the debt limit is raised without the necessary belt-tightening, the country’s credit rating will suffer, DeMint predicts. Republicans will too, he says, not just in the polls, but with the tea-party voters who backed them last year.

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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