House Republican leaders pulled out all the stops Tuesday to pass legislation tying a debt ceiling increase to a tight, long-term cap on federal spending — a vote that appealed to conservatives but also underscored the GOP’s difficulty in controlling its rambunctious majority.
President Obama warned that the debt ceiling debate had entered the 11th hour with no time for symbolic gestures or posturing, an implied criticism of the House’s “cut, cap and balance” measure that he has pledged to veto if it gets to his desk.
“It’s time to get down to the business of actually solving this problem,” Obama said, pointing to the looming Aug. 2 deadline, when the Treasury Department will run out of money to pay the nation’s bills and face a disruptive federal default.
Obama praised a new budget blueprint by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six. That plan would combine spending cuts and revenue increases in a $3.7-trillion deal approaching the “grand bargain” that Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had sought. But the complex proposal would be difficult to pass at this late stage.
Tuesday’s House vote was considered symbolic because the measure stood little or no chance of passing the Senate and was arranged by House GOP leaders as a rallying point for conservatives who otherwise would oppose a higher debt ceiling.
The legislation would cut federal spending by $110 billion in fiscal year 2012, cap future spending and raise the $14.3-trillion debt limit only after Congress sent states a proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate a balanced federal budget. That step would need approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, an improbable margin.
All but nine Republicans voted in favor of the bill, but the exertion required to pass the conservative-leaning measure accentuated the difficulty Boehner faces in getting his party caucus to act on the debt ceiling before Aug. 2.
“Tea party” activists and House GOP freshmen with expectations of vast spending cuts and historic budget changes are likely to become embittered as a deal on the debt ceiling takes shape. Managing — or lowering — their expectations will be a challenge for Boehner and other Republican leaders.
“No one’s really comfortable with raising the debt limit,” said freshman Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.). He said he was reluctant to go along with a debt ceiling increase, as past Congresses have done, without tackling serious budgetary reforms.
“That’s what the 87 freshmen hate about this,” said Ribble, who voted in favor of the GOP plan. “We’re pretty bull-headed about it because we don’t want people to say that about us.”
Intensifying pressure on Republicans were new surveys showing a shift in public opinion against GOP positions on the debt ceiling. A majority of Americans prefer Obama’s approach for combining more tax revenue with spending cuts in exchange for the debt ceiling vote, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And a USA Today/Gallup poll showed more Americans think Obama, rather than the GOP, is acting in the country’s best interests. Conservatives oppose more tax revenue.
Early Tuesday, Boehner assembled Republicans for a meeting that was as much about motivating rank-and-file lawmakers as ensuring the GOP had the votes to pass the bill.
Lawmakers were reminded of the importance of the day’s action: to showcase a GOP team working together to solve the nation’s debt ceiling question, with budget reforms that conservatives have promised.
“The House has the opportunity to show the people that sent us here that we are serious about turning the page on the failed fiscal policies that this town has been about over the last several decades,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, in a speech on the floor.
But in a sign of the conservative resistance to any debt ceiling deal, the Tea Party Patriots group criticized the House bill for ceding ground. The organization, made up of a network of local tea party activists, urged its members to tell Republican lawmakers to withhold their votes.
“Together we will stand firm against a debt ceiling increase,” the group wrote in an email.
As the bill passed 234 to 190, with five Democrats joining the Republican majority, Boehner pointed at the battle to come.
“I do think it’s responsible for us to look at what Plan B would look like,” the speaker said.
Catering to conservatives at this moment could backfire on GOP leaders as they prepare newcomers for the inevitable compromise. Behind the scenes, Senate leaders and others are working on a backup plan that would allow Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own in exchange for a much smaller package of spending cuts — a plan that conservatives dislike.
“The danger is that people think that this vote [Tuesday] absolves them of any responsibility to vote on the deal that eventually gets worked out between the White House and the speaker,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourrette (R-Ohio). “But that’s why those of us who love the speaker are going to work real hard.”
Anticipating a compromise, conservative groups have begun to increase pressure.
Several groups warned they would not support any lawmaker who voted in favor of allowing Obama to raise the debt limit on his own. Tea Party Express, the California-based group that backed high-profile conservatives in November’s election, said supporters of that plan “very well could find themselves being challenged in the primary.”
But such external pressure cuts both ways. Wall Street has signaled discomfort over the impasse, and a jolt in the financial markets could induce lawmakers to vote — much as positions changed in 2008 for the federal bank bailout.
“There’s an education curve,” LaTourrette said.