As the debt ceiling debate enters its final stages, House Republicans face increasing political isolation in their opposition to sweeping budget reforms that President Obama has pushed for and polls show most Americans now prefer.
Republican resistance to compromise has turned a significant bloc of voters against them, according to several new polls, and has frustrated members of their own leadership as well as establishment GOP figures.
The fear among leading Republicans is that the party may lose an opportunity to lock in budget cuts that go beyond anything Democrats had previously been willing to consider. Five-term Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he had never seen any spending reductions attached to a debt ceiling vote.
“It’s inconceivable,” Cole said. “Some of the members who haven’t been here don’t appreciate how much John Boehner has gotten for them.”
Boehner, an Ohio Republican and the House speaker, is leading an effort to try to prepare his restive House Republicans for a vote to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate have begun lining up behind a plan, offered by a bipartisan group known as the “Gang of Six,” to reduce the long-term deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade. That plan would include about $1.2 trillion in additional tax revenues over the 10-year period that House Republicans have so far resisted.
The White House indicated for the first time Wednesday that Obama would be willing to accept a short-term stop-gap plan, but only for a few days while Congress worked out the legislative details of a larger fix.
Either way, House Republicans remain the key obstacle to passing a debt ceiling increase and avoiding a possible federal default after Aug. 2. Their strict adherence to a no-new-taxes pledge all but rules out consideration of a larger agreement on deficits and the debt ceiling. Their position is reinforced by the fear that “tea party” groups will mount primary challenges against many Republicans who vote for anything that could be characterized as a tax increase.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and other high-profile conservatives have amplified such worries by harshly denouncing compromise proposals. Bachmann, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, began airing a new television ad Wednesday in Iowa that reiterates her opposition to a debt limit increase.
Many House GOP members came into office with expectations that their new movement would quickly succeed in shrinking the government and halting the growth of debt — expectations many GOP leadership figures consider unrealistically high.
Boehner, at the center of negotiations with the White House over a sweeping deficit-reduction deal, has had to spend much of the last several days trying to get his members to lower their expectations and ease their hostility to a compromise.
On Tuesday, he arranged a vote designed to appeal to conservatives by linking a debt ceiling increase to tight spending caps. The vote passed the House but is considered unlikely to advance. Still, Boehner’s move gave conservatives a showcase vote while also nudging them off their rigid opposition to lifting the debt ceiling. That step could make it easier to approve a new measure in the days ahead.
But the task remains difficult among the large group of freshman who came to Washington determined to cut the size and scope of government — to “do something, not be something,” as they often say.
The new class of freshman and their conservative allies in the House are not as responsive to party leadership as earlier generations of lawmakers. They openly profess more allegiance to each other.
“I’m fired up more than I’ve ever been that we truly are going to change the way business is done,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a rising star of the conservative flank, as the House passed the debt ceiling package he sponsored.
The party’s enthusiasm for budget cuts over compromise may leave Republicans with less than they could have otherwise achieved. Obama had proposed a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, even carving into Medicare and Social Security while drawing opposition from within his own ranks.
Former Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican first elected alongside Ronald Reagan, admires the principled approach in the new GOP lawmakers on the Hill. He just doesn’t know if it makes good politics.
“If it’s an all-or-nothing strategy, you’re likely to end up with nothing,” said Weber, now a GOP consultant. “The notion of just standing firm for your principle at the expense of achieving your goal is just wrong.”
A case in point is the back-up plan being crafted to raise the debt ceiling. It is far less ambitious than the Gang of Six plan, providing less than $1.5 trillion in cuts, a level unacceptable to many in the GOP.
It would still represent an unprecedented accomplishment for a GOP House speaker. Nonetheless, rank-and-file House Republicans are unlikely to embrace it.
In the end, it may be a negative reaction in financial markets, rather than political pressure, that spurs action.
Boehner’s “got a big problem,” Weber said. “You’ve got to make the case that the broad conservative principles can be served by this agreement.”