Politics & Policy

Key Question

Did Heritage Action privately okay a clean debt-limit increase?

Heritage Action has already rankled a number of Republicans with its aggressive support of the movement to defund Obamacare, an effort that many believe to be the cause of the ongoing government shutdown. And the conservative group’s latest foray into the debate is not sitting well with some GOP lawmakers either.

CEO Michael Needham announced this week that Heritage Action would not “key vote” a GOP proposal to extend the debt limit for six weeks with no policy strings attached — that is, it will not penalize in its ratings supporters of a so-called clean increase, something that Republicans and conservative groups have adamantly opposed, at least since 2011.

“We do not support clean debt ceiling increases,” Needham reiterated in a statement Thursday, “but because Heritage Action is committed to giving House Leadership the flexibility they need to refocus the debate on Obamacare we will not key vote against the reported proposal.”

Behind the scenes, Heritage Action has been vocally advocating for a clean, short-term debt-limit increase, sources say. During a meeting with conservative groups and senior GOP staff members at the Capitol on Tuesday, Heritage Action reps urged Republicans to back a clean increase, according to two people present at the meeting. The argument was exactly like the one Needham outlined publicly: A short-term solution to the debt limit would allow Republicans to shift focus back on the continuing resolution and, most important, Obamacare.

“We do not support clean debt-ceiling increases,” Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler reiterated to National Review Online when asked about the meeting, while including a link to Needham’s statement.

Some Republicans think the group is being disingenuous by privately advocating a policy it doesn’t support publicly and has “key voted” against in the past. Most Republicans have opposed, and continue to oppose, all efforts to increase the debt limit without meaningful spending cuts or other budget reforms attached. They believe Heritage Action is asking Republicans to abandon that position by voting for a clean increase without abandoning its own public opposition.

Although House leadership has embraced the proposal, Senate Republicans aren’t exactly eager to cast such a vote. “It’s unthinkable that Republicans, that conservatives would be supportive of a clean debt-limit increase,” says a Senate GOP aide. “So unthinkable, in fact, that while Heritage Action is privately advocating for one, they can’t issue a statement saying they support it.”

It is likely, as some conservative aides concede, that the GOP members most supportive of the defunding effort will end up voting against a clean debt-limit increase anyway, even though they support the Heritage Action strategy. In a way, this is merely the latest manifestation of the strategy divide within the GOP. One side believes that the effort to defund Obamacare through the continuing resolution is misguided, and Republicans should focus on the debt limit, while the other is willing to temporarily put off the debt-limit fight in order to continue its pursuit of defunding via the continuing resolution.

Some Republicans look at the most recent polling data and think the GOP needs to end the government shutdown as quickly as possible, while others shrug it off. Defunders have accused their GOP critics of being insufficiently committed to repealing Obamacare, and now those critics accuse defunders of being “so invested in their shutdown strategy” that they’ve undergone an “overnight conversion” on debt-limit policy.

One thing’s for sure: The search for GOP unity continues.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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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