Near dusk, on Tuesday, June 28, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin took to the floor. The mild-mannered former businessman did more than offer a few words — he threatened to halt Senate business. “Unless we receive some assurance from the Democrat leadership that we will actually start addressing our budget out in the open, in the bright light of day, I will begin to object,” he said. “Unless that happens, I will begin to withhold my consent.”
Johnson’s one-man protest raised eyebrows around the upper chamber, where unanimous consent greases the procedural gears. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, sensing trouble, promptly quashed the standoff. But the message was clear: Johnson is not afraid to tussle. Indeed, as the debt debate rages, the freshman Republican has emerged as one of the leading conservatives in the fight, riling Democrats at every turn.
For the low-key Midwesterner, the high-profile scuffle was long coming. Johnson was elected last year, toppling incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold, a popular progressive. Yet for his first six months in office, he shunned the spotlight. His activities were of the backbench variety — tending to constituent affairs, building relationships. By June, however, when Democrats continued to dawdle on fiscal matters, Johnson began to simmer.
“I had enough of it,” Johnson says in an interview with National Review Online. “I know I’m a pretty junior member of Congress, and I don’t have a very loud voice. But what happened last Tuesday was a wake-up call. I never intended to shut down the Senate from that point on. I simply wanted to make a point, to put the Senate on notice.”
Reid certainly noticed. Johnson kept nipping at his heels after the initial filibuster fizzled. Last Wednesday, Johnson cranked up the heat, warning that if Democrats did not propose a budget or work with Republicans on deficit reduction, he might force the Senate to work through the scheduled Fourth of July recess. A day later, Reid cancelled it, keeping senators in town.
Johnson was pleased. Still, he knew that an in-session Senate was no guarantee of legislative action. President Obama and GOP leaders continue to haggle over the federal debt limit, which the Treasury Department expects to expire in early August, but no deal has been reached so far. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have failed to produce a budget for the fiscal year.
To shake things up, Johnson has pushed to have debt-limit solutions hashed out under the glare of C-SPAN cameras. As he said on a conference call with bloggers Thursday, he finds the idea of closed-door discussions “disgusting.” Yes, he respects House Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to negotiate with Obama, but he feels the ongoing (stalled) talks have enabled Democrats to win the public-relations war, painting Republicans as obstructionists.
“President Obama realizes that he can demagogue these issues, that it might be to his electoral advantage,” Johnson says. “I don’t believe he is negotiating in good faith on this. He thinks that he has the high ground and Republicans have their backs against the wall. With letters going out to Social Security recipients saying their checks are in danger, he thinks we will cave. So he is not seriously addressing the problem. That’s sad.”
Moving forward, “I am hoping to persuade House Republicans to vote to increase the debt ceiling, contingent on the fact that we are putting structural reforms in place,” Johnson says. “If you could really get certification that we have sent a balanced-budget amendment to the states in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, I’d increase it.”
To get the House hustling, especially as Boehner maneuvers, Johnson wants to do more than chastise Obama for his irresponsible leadership — he wants to kickstart the move toward a conservative option, to give Republicans more than a brokered deal to consider.
“I think there is a growing movement to actually pass the ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’ plan into law,” says Johnson, referring to a plan floated among conservative groups that would have lawmakers cut spending, establish spending caps, and send a balanced-budget amendment to the states for constitutional ratification. “What I am hoping to do is work with House members to craft legislation that they’re satisfied with.”
Johnson acknowledges that he does not have final say on the debt-limit deal. Yet he remains optimistic. “What I am hoping for is that we get a consensus in the Republican party to actually be for something,” he says. “If the House passed these measures and put them into the debt package, it would put the pressure on the Democrats and put pressure on the president.”
As the clock ticks, Johnson is pushing a smaller contingency plan, a so-called “debt-ceiling budget,” as a stopgap solution. If the debt ceiling is not extended, “we can still make sure we cover essential services,” he says. “It would not be pleasant, and I’m not recommending it.”
Still, “if one Social Security recipient does not get his or her check, if one interest payment is missed, if one soldier does not get paid, that will not be the fault of Republicans,” he says. “That’s a choice made by Treasury Secretary Geithner and President Obama. It would be their choice and their fault alone.”
Reflecting back on his raucous week, Johnson says he enjoys playing a more prominent role on Capitol Hill. His on-the-floor revolt, he notes, was neither random nor a mere outburst of exasperation. It was an example of picking one’s spots, knowing how to flex your political muscle.
“I have been selling plastic for 32 years. I am a salesman,” he says. “This isn’t about sales — that almost degrades what I am trying to do. But we have to understand that this is also about persuading people about our point of view.”
And sometimes, a hard sell is necessary.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.