Despite being adamantly opposed to hiking the debt ceiling without spending cuts, some Republicans are showing signs of surrender on the issue.
While House Republicans will meet next week and Senate Republicans are planning to meet early next month to discuss strategy, including on the debt ceiling, there’s deep skepticism that they can win cuts from Democrats.
“I just think it’s unfortunate, very disappointing to me, but I think the air’s out of the balloon on fiscal issues,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., soon after voting against the omnibus spending bill.
Corker pointed to the government shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown in October as reasons for his doubts about being able to reduce federal spending. Those episodes proved politically costly to Republicans in public polling, and left Democrats feeling emboldened about their strategy of refusing to negotiate on the debt limit.
Polling indicates just how dicey the debt ceiling can be. The public recognizes that raising the debt ceiling is important for the economy, but many Americans also say they realize how problematic debt is — even though the limit represents debts Congress has already incurred.
Some insiders are suggesting the public might be tired of the brinkmanship that’s revolved around recent fiscal debates.
“The debt-ceiling fight has become old hat to most voters,” said Terry Holt, a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. “And Chicken Little has been on the go for some time now.”
An October survey from Pew Research showed that 51 percent of Americans thought it was essential to raise the debt limit. But another survey, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from late last year, showed that 44 percent did not want to raise the debt limit.
Clearly still frustrated over the defund-Obamacare strategy that his colleagues — primarily Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — pursued, Corker lamented that Republicans shifted the subject away from fiscal issues, sabotaging any leverage this time.
“I just don’t feel it,” Corker said. “I was involved all summer with the White House. Then we had the shutdown this fall, which let’s face it, took us away from fiscal issues.”
The Republican position contrasts sharply with that of Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, has already begun beating the no-negotiation drum. In his recent meeting with Senate Democrats, President Obama was “extremely emphatic” that he will not bargain with Republicans over hiking the debt limit, Reid said.
Boehner, for his part, did not rule out passing a debt-limit extension.
“How many times have we talked about this?” Boehner asked recently. “Listen, the president has not only made clear that he will not negotiate on the debt limit, he has also made clear, as have Democrats here on Capitol Hill, that they won’t talk about our long-term spending problems unless the Republicans are willing to raise taxes,” he said.
Republicans, Boehner went on to say, won’t raise taxes. But left unsaid was whether the GOP will agree to a hike without spending cuts.
That’s an argument that might not be worth having, with Democrats already indicating such cuts are off the table and some Republicans realizing they can fare better with voters if they focus on Obamacare.
“Picking smart fights is better for keeping the majority,” said Kevin Madden, a former aide to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “I think Boehner will make the case that a procedural showdown over the debt limit isn’t a smart fight.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, though, said a so-called clean debt-limit increase won’t pass the House, suggesting Democrats would have to budge.
It’s just not clear what exactly Republicans can extract from the White House and Reid on the debt ceiling. Senate Republicans have suggested reforming the tax code or reducing the regulatory burden as possible trading pieces.
“We’ve got to get into reforms, reforms of our mandatory spending programs,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “So people go, ‘Well here comes the debt-ceiling issue again, we’ve got to have an agreement.’ “
But there has been little indication from leaders on the Hill that will happen, and with the recent budget deal, some are suggesting lawmakers won’t find opportunities for compromise on such short notice.
“This is a time for being realistic about what demands we can exact,” Madden said.
Certainly, Wall Street seems to expect that lawmakers won’t cause an election-year stir over the debt ceiling this winter.
“We expect another suspension of the debt ceiling without a major fight,” Morgan Stanley told its clients, according to The Wall Street Journal.
While the legislation passed last year extended the $17 trillion limit until Feb. 7, when precisely the Treasury will hit the ceiling is not clear. Last week Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said he believes it will come in February.
Lawmakers will have to address the issue, viewed as must-pass legislation, in a tight time frame, with Congress out this week and back for three weeks before the weeklong Presidents Day break.