Politics & Policy

A New Deficit Plan

House Republicans are optimistic, but wary.

A new deficit-reduction plan unveiled by House GOP leaders on Monday was generally well received by rank-and-file members, who were briefed on the proposal at an afternoon conference meeting. While many expressed a desire to learn more about the plan’s specifics, members were largely optimistic about the path ahead. “It looks good, but we’ve still got to work on it,” freshman representative Bobby Schilling (R., Ill.) said as he exited the meeting.

Even Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.), a freshman and tea-party favorite, told National Review Online that while the plan was a “75 to 80 percent solution,” it was something he could ultimately support. “You know, son, one thing they tell you in the military — if you sit around and wait to come up with the 100 percent plan, then the enemy has probably already attacked you,” he said.

#ad#The House Republican plan, as outlined, would raise the debt ceiling in two steps. The first would allow for a debt increase of about $1 trillion (enough to last until about February or March of 2012) and impose statutory caps on discretionary spending over the next ten years that would yield about $1.2 trillion in savings. Failure to abide by these caps would trigger automatic, across-the-board reductions.

The second step would establish a special joint committee of Congress that would be instructed to produce an additional $1.6 trillion to $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction, presumably through entitlement reform, which would then be sent to Congress for an up-or-down, simple-majority vote. If Congress successfully passes the committee’s proposal, President Obama could then request an additional $1.6 trillion increase to the debt ceiling, subject to a symbolic “resolution of disapproval” in Congress, a process that would mirror the framework put forward by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

The plan would also require both chambers to consider and vote on a balanced-budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution sometime between October 1 and the end of the year. According to sources present at the meeting, this was an area of contention among members, some of whom wanted the BBA vote to be held much sooner — as early as this week. “You have to strike while the iron’s hot,” said West. “Let’s do it right now.”

Other members, such as Rep. Bill Flores (R., Texas), a freshman member of the House Budget Committee, agreed. But despite a few minor reservations, Flores told NRO he was “pleased” with the plan overall. “It’s not perfect,” he said. “Unfortunately, very little that’s done up here is perfect. But it is, I think, very thoughtfully put together.” He praised the plan for outlining a path that “measurably moves the United States toward fiscal soundness,” and predicted it would pass the House.

Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.) said he and other members were awaiting the official scoring from the Congressional Budget Office to get a sense of the details of the $1.2 trillion in cuts that are being proposed. He also expressed concern that the special joint committee could open the door for tax increases if its task is “deficit reduction” rather than “spending reduction,” though he acknowledged that any proposal would have to be approved by the House. In a briefing with reporters earlier in the day, a senior GOP aide brushed aside these concerns. “We appoint members to the committee, and we’re not appointing any Republicans who will vote for tax hikes,” the aide said.

Not everyone was so convinced. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.), a conservative freshman, told NRO he was disappointed that the plan did not appear to “reflect the principles” of the House-passed “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation. “We’re still looking for the cuts, the caps haven’t been identified, and the BBA has been dropped,” he said. “Cut, Cap, and Balance” would have mandated the passage of a BBA, so that it could be sent to the states, rather than a mere vote on one. Huelskamp said putting this requirement back in would be the only way to ensure that future spending cuts are carried out. “The BBA is the standard by which we measure real progress in Washington,” he said. “This is the time you push and say, we’re sticking to our principles. It’s not the time to punt to October, to punt to next year, or punt to the next election.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus that was largely responsible for drafting “Cut, Cap and Balance,” came out in opposition to the plan. “While I thank the speaker for fighting for Republican principles, I cannot support the plan that was presented to House Republicans this afternoon,” he said in a statement. “Washington wants a deal. Americans want a solution. The Senate should resume debate on the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, amend it if necessary, and pass it, so we can provide the American people a real solution.”

Without (at minimum) a BBA requirement in the plan, Huelskamp said, GOP leaders will have a hard time attracting conservative votes, and will likely face a defection at least as big as the 59-member bloc that opposed the Boehner-Obama spending compromise negotiated in April.

Still, party leaders remain confident they can bring a large majority of their conference on board.“What I saw in there was a very sober assessment of where we are,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas), the Republican conference chairman. “People have elected John Boehner to be their speaker. A lot of people are ringside, but he’s the only one in the ring. I am hopeful, once again, that 218 Republicans will come together.”

“We’ll have to see,” Lankford said. “I think everybody’s going to have to read it. There was a lot of enthusiasm over the initial idea, but is there 218? I don’t know.”

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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