Sometimes your closest allies can become your biggest headaches. That's what senior Republicans, negotiating an increase in the nation's debt ceiling, are finding out as the clock ticks down toward the August 2 deadline.
As top Republicans face delicate and difficult negotiations with the White House, they are beginning a concerted effort to prepare newer members of the Republican conference to vote in favor of raising the ceiling. This coming week's most difficult task, some Republicans believe, will be getting their own freshman class to a yes vote.
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The hurdles House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their respective leadership teams face are formidable. The vast majority of new members, coupled with hard-core conservative veterans like Sen. Jim DeMint, began the year indicating there was no way they could vote to raise the debt ceiling. Some even believe there won't be consequences if a deal isn't reached by August 2.
Slowly, senior Republicans have been walking their newer colleagues off that position. Boehner, McConnell and the rest know what will happen if Republicans and Democrats cannot work out a deal; what's more, they believe voters will ultimately blame them for obstruction, rather than Democrats. "The leadership uniformally understands the need to reach some kind of agreement that will avoid default," said a senior House Republican aide.
McConnell has publicly made the case that a default will have serious negative political fallout for the GOP. In an interview on conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham's program on Wednesday, McConnell said Democrats "want to blame the economy on us and the reason default is no better an idea today than when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995 is that it destroys your brand. It would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy."
Privately, House Republicans have been driving home the message that a failure to increase the debt ceiling would be a disaster. Sources said Boehner has been "aggressive," in one aide's words, in articulating the need to reach a deal.
In a presentation to the House Republican Conference on Friday, Jay Powell, a former Under Secretary at the Treasury Department under George H.W. Bush and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, laid out just what would happen if a deal isn't reached.
On August 3, according to Powell's presentation, the federal government would be on the hook for $32 billion in committed spending, including $23 billion in Social Security checks, $500 million in federal worker salaries, $1.4 billion owed to Defense Department vendors and $100 million in refunds the IRS owes to businesses. On the same day, the government will take in only $12 billion in revenue, giving the government a $20 billion cash deficit. By August 15, when the federal government is on the hook for a $29 billion interest payment, the cash shortfall will have grown to $74 billion—and possibly more, if interest rates on U.S. debt rises.
The presentation, according to several sources in the room at the time, was aimed at conveying the seriousness of the moment. Recent warnings from Moody's and Standard & Poor's that they could downgrade the nation's debt have underscored the danger a default poses. It's a message Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill have been trying to drive home to their members.
"There are serious repercussions for the country if the debt limit is not raised and it's important that members have information on what we may be facing. The aim is not to scare anyone but the facts are frightening," said a top Senate Republican aide.
But Republican leadership's task is far more complicated than simply convincing their members to vote one way or another. Instead, they must convince those members they are getting a good deal, which, given the slow pace of negotiations, is not a saleable pitch right now. "It would be a mistake to believe that any of our leaders will support a deal that is insufficiently aggressive on debt reduction or one that raises taxes," the House Republican aide said.
McConnell, specifically, has had serious problems with the White House's initial proposals. At one meeting at the White House, McConnell asked how much money a proposal hammered out by Vice President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of negotiators would cut. Told just $2 billion were enforceable cuts over the next year while the rest of the cuts were subject to ratification by future Congresses, McConnell was incensed. That's when he decided on what one top advisor called his "break glass plan," which would give President Obama the ability to raise the debt ceiling without Republican votes.
That plan demonstrated the difficulty in selling newer members on a debt-ceiling increase. Those newer members, leadership aides said, are falling for the same tricks that so angered them earlier this year during a battle over the budget.
The Tea Party freshmen were livid when a budget deal hammered out this spring appeared to cut much more than it actually did; though the agreement appeared to cut $38 billion in spending this year, accounting gimmicks meant that figure was much lower, and the deal would cut the deficit by less than half the amount Boehner advertised, according to a Congressional Budget Office review.
Now, most of the cuts agreed to by the White House and congressional negotiators are subject to the ratification of future congresses. They are, senior Republicans argue, the same accounting gimmicks that appeared in the budget. The McConnell proposal requires the president to propose offsetting cuts for each increase, but it does not require the cuts to become law for the debt ceiling increases to happen.
For his troubles, McConnell attracted nothing but hatred from the Republican base. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson compared him with Pontius Pilate and suggested activists both burn him in effigy and send him a weasel. DeMint pledged to "use all the tools available in the Senate" to stop the plan. And though Boehner said McConnell's plan was a good backup, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose role in the negotiations has increased in the last week, rejected it outright.
Time is winding down before the U.S. reaches the limits of its deficit spending. For Republican leadership, the goals in the critical week ahead will not only be to reach a compromise with the White House, but to lay the groundwork so that their own members accept the eventual deal. Given the reluctance of the membership itself to go along, and the pressure emanating from outside activists, it's less clear whether it will be harder to reach agreement with Obama or with the new class in town.