House Republicans have united around a proposal to tie sizeable spending cuts and major budget reforms to any increase to the debt ceiling. The plan, known as “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” originated in the Republican Study Committee, and has gradually made its way to the forefront of the GOP’s intraparty discussions on the debt limit. At a closed-door conference meeting Friday morning, Republican leaders resolved to vote on — and pass — the plan next week on the House floor. Its chances for success in the Senate are close to nil, but Republicans intend to present it as the type of plan that can pass the House, and also as a serious proposal that House Republicans have put forward in the absence of Democratic leadership.
“All year long, we’ve led on the big issues that are facing the country,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) at a press conference Friday, citing the House-passed Paul Ryan budget as a key example. “We’re in the fourth quarter here. 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.”
Under the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation, Congress would raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion (the amount requested by President Obama to get him through the 2012 election). However, that increase would go into effect only if both houses of Congress pass — with two-thirds majorities — a balanced-budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution and send it to the states for ratification. In addition, the plan calls for significant spending cuts to next year’s budget — about $111 billion — and firm caps on federal spending at 18.5 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. According to White House data, given current trends, spending will exceed 25 percent of GDP this year and will hover around 22.5 percent for the next five years. (The legislation will make no immediate changes to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security.)
In particular, House Republicans have been increasingly vocal about their desire for a BBA in the past several days, including in a slew of op-eds from party leaders and a number of press conferences on Capitol Hill. The House had planned to vote on a BBA next week, but that has been postponed to allow for the consideration of “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” and to give party leaders more time to try to pin down the 50-plus Democratic votes they’ll need to pass a BBA.
Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.) tells National Review Online that Friday’s meeting “served to galvanize” the GOP caucus. “We’ve had a few internal conflicts among ourselves this year with the [continuing resolution] and other issues,” he said. “But I’m going to be very surprised if I don’t see a significant majority of the people sitting in that room get behind this plan.”
Proponents believe the plan is strong enough to convince some, if not all, Republicans who have said they won’t support a debt increase under any circumstances to sign on. Raising the debt ceiling, says Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a prominent fiscal hawk, would be “a bitter pill for us to swallow.” “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” he argues, is the best available option. “First of all, it’s good policy, it does the right thing,” he says. “And secondly, on the politics side, we’re back on offense. It puts it squarely in the president’s court, he can follow or not.”
Members also point out that not only is “Cut, Cap, and Balance” the only plan out there that stands a chance to pass the House, it is also the only one that actually addresses the country’s underlying debt and deficit problems in a meaningful way. “There really are two people in this conversation, two different voices: one that thinks the crisis is the impending vote and one that thinks the crisis is the debt,” says Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), a freshman member of the House Budget Committee. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to come down with a solution not just a vote.”
Some Republicans think “Cut, Cap, and Balance” has the potential to change the political debate over the debt ceiling and resonate with voter concerns about the country’s fiscal challenges. “This is going to fire the imagination of millions of Americans,” says Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.). “And when the American people get on the phones, sending e-mails, sending faxes, I believe that we can win this battle for fiscal discipline.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) suggests that recent warnings from the S&P and Moody’s that the U.S. credit rating could be downgraded “unless substantial and credible agreement is achieved on a budget that includes long-term deficit reduction” have increased the appetite among voters and lawmakers alike for a substantial debt-reduction package that goes beyond the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts being discussed in negotiations with the White House.
What started out as the brainchild of freshmen and tea-party members — strongly supported by the likes of Club for Growth and Heritage Action — “Cut, Cap, and Balance” has quickly become a mainstream GOP position. Conservative senators including Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Mike Lee (R., Utah), and Rand Paul (R., Ky.) introduced “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation last week. On Thursday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and GOP conference chair Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) both signed on to the bill, a clear indication of the momentum building behind the proposal.
However, despite near-unanimous support within the GOP for “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” a critical stumbling block to its success will be actually passing — with the required two-thirds majorities — a balanced-budget amendment in either chamber. Even in the Republican-majority House, this could prove a tall order, as Republicans would need nearly one-fourth of the Democratic caucus to vote with them. Minority whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) — despite previously indicating his support for a BBA — has promised to whip aggressively against the measure. In the Senate, at least 19 Democrats would need to sign on, which seems even less likely. Many see a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, which is almost certain to fail, as a free political boost for moderate Democrats facing tough reelections in 2012.
With “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” however, proponents believe that tying a debt-ceiling increase to congressional passage of a BBA could reframe the debate to the GOP’s advantage by forcing Democrats to explain why they oppose not only the amendment itself, but merely the act of letting the states decide whether to ratify it.
Boehner says there are “a lot of options” being floated now that negotiations with the White House seem to have reached a breaking point. “Cut, Cap, and Balance” may have no chance of becoming law, but it will die as the “Republican option” — as yet another proposal offered by House Republicans to restore fiscal discipline in Washington. The Democrats cannot portray any of their proposals the same way. For his part, President Obama on Friday dismissed calls for a BBA, calling it a “typical Washington response,” adding, with no apparent irony: “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do our jobs.”
“Next week, Republicans again will show that they can lead,” said House minority whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). “We welcome every Democrat to join with us. But we will take the bill out of the House, and if you’ve ever questioned whether Republicans can do it on their own, they will.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.