These Conservatives Are Done Fighting Over the Debt Ceiling

The last time around, they put up a giant fight over government funding. Now some Republicans have mellowed out — and would settle for a clean bill.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) speaks to reporters after a news conference May 16, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Feb. 6, 2014, 11:03 a.m.

The world looked dif­fer­ent four months ago for con­ser­vat­ives. They were fired up. The gov­ern­ment was shut down over de­mands to de­fund, then delay, Obama­care, and the debt-ceil­ing in­crease vote was around the corner. “We’re really, very en­er­gized today. We’re very strong,” Rep. Michele Bach­mann told Fox’s Sean Han­nity then. “This is about the hap­pi­est I’ve seen mem­bers in a long time be­cause we’ve seen we’re start­ing to win this dia­logue on a na­tion­al level.”

But now with an­oth­er ma­jor dead­line ahead — the debt ceil­ing — Bach­mann and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans sound markedly dif­fer­ent. “What I’ve heard from oth­er mem­bers,” Bach­mann says, “is that this is not go­ing to be the hill that they’re go­ing to die on.”

“You have to know when to hold them and you have to know when to fold them,” ad­ded Bach­mann, who isn’t ad­voc­at­ing for a clean debt-ceil­ing bill. “You just need to be wise to know when to have polit­ic­al fights. It isn’t that our al­le­gi­ance to prin­ciples have changed; it hasn’t at all. You just need to know when your op­por­tun­it­ies are and when to ex­er­cise your lever­age.”

With House Speak­er John Boehner re­peatedly vow­ing that the coun­try will not de­fault on its debt, and lead­er­ship look­ing for sweeten­ers to a debt-ceil­ing in­crease, some con­ser­vat­ives are ac­tu­ally say­ing a clean bill should come to the floor now. That’s how they ex­pect this whole epis­ode to play out any­way, they reas­on. They’ll vote against it, but save the drama.

“What’s the defin­i­tion of in­san­ity? Do­ing the same thing over and ex­pect­ing dif­fer­ent res­ults. That ap­plies in this case,” says Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Thomas Massie of Ken­tucky. “You can ex­pect the same res­ults if you have the same par­ti­cipants.”

It’s an “ob­vi­ous” real­iz­a­tion, he adds.

Rep. Raul Lab­rador of Idaho has said the House should just take up a clean debt-ceil­ing bill. “Give the Demo­crats their vote. We don’t have to vote for it.” Like­wise, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan ac­know­ledged where things are headed: “I wish they would do something sub­stant­ive, but they’re not go­ing to, so let’s just avoid the theat­er and get on with it.”

In­deed, “a sense of real­ism among the con­fer­ence” has taken hold, Bach­mann says. Let the Demo­crats take a tough vote first or at­tach something that would do some good, she reas­ons.

But what about the Hastert Rule, which in­form­ally for­bids any bill be­ing put on the floor without the sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity? House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has already broken it six times from 2011 to 2013, and it looks like it may again. “Moth­er Teresa is a saint now, but if the Con­gress wanted to make her a saint and at­tach that to the debt ceil­ing, we prob­ably couldn’t get 218 Re­pub­lic­an votes,” Boehner said Thursday.

While Rep. John Flem­ing of Louisi­ana doesn’t want a clean bill first, he says “there is some mer­it” to con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers say­ing a clean bill should just move for­ward now. “We’re at a point now where we’ve got about as much dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing as we can get out of this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he says. He es­tim­ated that as many as 40 Re­pub­lic­ans will vote against a debt-ceil­ing in­crease no mat­ter what’s at­tached to it.

Con­ser­vat­ives push back on the idea that this new sense of real­ism is an at­ti­tude change. Rather, it’s a re­sponse to changed cir­cum­stances. Ahead of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, Obama­care was about to be im­ple­men­ted. They felt this was their last shot to make a grand stand to pre­vent it from be­ing rolled out. “Com­mon sense [told] you that this pres­id­ent has got to con­sider delay­ing or at least re­view­ing, re­con­sid­er­ing or al­ter­ing” Obama­care, Flem­ing says. “We were will­ing to go to the mat for that reas­on.”

The shut­down and how it played out dis­ab­used them of that idea. But con­fid­ence in their lead­er­ship also plays a ma­jor role. Even be­fore House Re­pub­lic­ans huddled at their an­nu­al re­treat to hash out a debt-ceil­ing strategy, lead­er­ship was sig­nal­ing a de­fault wouldn’t hap­pen.

“What you’re pick­ing up from a lot of con­ser­vat­ives on the Hill, and this ex­tends bey­ond the Hill, is they re­cog­nize their lead­er­ship in Con­gress isn’t will­ing to fight,” Dan Holler of Her­it­age Ac­tion says. “Their mem­bers, their con­stitu­ents — no one wants to see a fake fight. No one wants to see them go­ing through the mo­tions.”

So while Re­pub­lic­ans search for something they can at­tach to a debt-lim­it in­crease, some con­ser­vat­ives are resign­ing them­selves to the in­ev­it­able con­clu­sion. And the only way to change a con­clu­sion that looks in­ev­it­able is to switch up the cast of char­ac­ters. There’s al­ways Novem­ber. “We need to change the Sen­ate,” Massie says.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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