Why Are Republicans Backing Off the Debt Ceiling? They Could Lose the House.

A government shutdown probably won’t shake Republicans from their House majority. But a debt-limit crisis might.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) (L) answer questions from reporters November 3, 2010 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Oct. 10, 2013, 5:32 a.m.

In a nor­mal polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, the GOP’s grip on the House is ef­fect­ively un­break­able. Thanks to a con­gres­sion­al map dis­pro­por­tion­ately tilted in its fa­vor, the party holds only 17 dis­tricts that Pres­id­ent Obama won last year. In fact, Re­pub­lic­ans were strongly po­si­tioned to add to their 17-seat ma­jor­ity dur­ing next year’s midterms: The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port lists nine Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents who rep­res­ent toss-up dis­tricts. Re­pub­lic­ans have only two. But fail­ing to raise the debt lim­it, a scen­ario fin­an­cial ex­perts warn will cause a de­fault on the coun­try’s debts and world­wide eco­nom­ic pan­ic, would make 2014 any­thing but a nor­mal polit­ic­al year. And even as House Re­pub­lic­ans con­tem­plate a six-week debt-lim­it ex­ten­sion, both sides re­main far apart on a long-term deal, mean­ing the threat of de­fault is un­likely to abate any time soon.

Few Demo­crats or Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment shut­down will hand Demo­crats con­trol of the House, but a de­fault is dif­fer­ent. GOP op­er­at­ives warn it’s the kind of polit­ics-chan­ging event that would threaten even the most hardened of ma­jor­it­ies. “Any party who thinks their ma­jor­ity is bul­let­proof is bound to find out that is not the case,” said one GOP con­sult­ant with ties to the busi­ness com­munity, who was gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly.

The risk to Re­pub­lic­ans hinges on two even­tu­al­it­ies: The re­per­cus­sions of a debt-lim­it crisis are severe, and Re­pub­lic­ans re­ceive most of the blame. On the former, there’s wide­spread agree­ment: Al­low­ing the United States to de­fault on its ob­lig­a­tions would be cata­stroph­ic. The con­sequences would be far more dis­astrous than a gov­ern­ment shut­down, which, while dam­aging, doesn’t threaten to send in­terest rates skyrock­et­ing or 401(k) plans plum­met­ing. “In the midst of this fisc­al chal­lenge, the on­go­ing polit­ic­al un­cer­tainty over the budget and the debt ceil­ing does not help,” said Christine Lagarde, head of the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund. “The gov­ern­ment shut­down is bad enough, but fail­ure to raise the debt ceil­ing would be far worse, and could very ser­i­ously dam­age not only the U.S. eco­nomy, but the en­tire glob­al eco­nomy.”

Wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans would re­ceive the bulk of the blame is not cer­tain, of course, but it looks like a good bet. A spate of re­cent polls about the shut­down sug­gest that not only do more people blame the GOP than the Demo­crats for gov­ern­ment dys­func­tion, they’re also grow­ing in­creas­ingly frus­trated with the party. The pub­lic’s ap­prov­al of Obama’s role in the shut­down stan­doff has ac­tu­ally ris­en, from 41 per­cent to 45 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to one ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey taken in late Septem­ber and an­oth­er one in early Oc­to­ber. Mean­while, in the Oc­to­ber poll, 70 per­cent of adults said they dis­ap­prove of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans’ con­duct dur­ing the ne­go­ti­ations, in­clud­ing 51 per­cent who said they strongly dis­ap­prove. That’s a 7-point jump from the pre­vi­ous sur­vey. Sim­il­arly, a Gal­lup Poll re­leased Wed­nes­day showed the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s ap­prov­al rat­ing sink­ing to a re­cord low of 28 per­cent, down from 38 per­cent in Septem­ber.

The polit­ics of the shut­down aren’t a per­fect match for the debt ceil­ing’s — for one thing, polls show most Amer­ic­ans op­pose the kind of “clean” debt-lim­it in­crease Demo­crats have de­man­ded. But Re­pub­lic­ans know the pub­lic has blamed them for these fights be­fore, and if the ceil­ing is breached, party lead­ers are bra­cing for more back­lash. As one Re­pub­lic­an strategist said, it’s the “light­er flu­id” that could set off a polit­ic­al in­ferno next year. “If we’re still talk­ing about this in Janu­ary and Feb­ru­ary “¦ then I will be­lieve this was the kind of cata­stroph­ic event that star­ted the down­ward spir­al,” the in­sider said.

Not all Re­pub­lic­ans share that fear. Some ar­gue that if de­fault oc­curs, the fal­lout will be just as bad or worse for con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats and Obama. The pres­id­ent is in charge, and he has yet to avert a crisis. People blamed the Great De­pres­sion on Her­bert Hoover, didn’t they? “It would have massive re­per­cus­sions in both party’s elec­tions, but I also think we’ve got to get back to un­der­stand­ing that the Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ment is, “˜Obama won’t ne­go­ti­ate,’ “ said Guy Har­ris­on, a former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. “I don’t think that’s a good place for him to be.”

A single event, even one as con­sequen­tial as de­fault­ing on the debt, is nev­er guar­an­teed to make or break a ma­jor­ity more than a year be­fore an elec­tion. But hold­ing onto the House in 2014 shouldn’t be the GOP’s only con­cern. A de­fault could thwart the party from win­ning a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, and House Demo­crats could still make sig­ni­fic­ant, if not ma­jor­ity-mak­ing, gains. That alone would be note­worthy be­cause midterms his­tor­ic­ally fa­vor the party that doesn’t con­trol the White House, and a strong 2014 show­ing would po­s­i­tion the Demo­crats to re­take the cham­ber dur­ing the 2016 races.But the big­ger, long-term prob­lem is the ef­fect the dual crises of a shut­down and de­fault would have on the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s im­age, which only nine months ago al­most every­one in the GOP agreed needed a ma­jor makeover. The twin dis­asters would re­in­force the pub­lic’s worst per­cep­tions of the party: It’s ex­trem­ist, ob­struc­tion­ist, and in­cap­able of gov­ern­ing. “What are the Re­pub­lic­ans’ strengths go­ing to be?” asked the GOP op­er­at­ive with ties to the busi­ness com­munity. “Per­cep­tion is, Re­pub­lic­ans un­der­stand the free mar­ket, so if we take a hit on the debt ceil­ing, that ob­vi­ously un­der­cuts that nar­rat­ive.”

Los­ing the House ma­jor­ity is bad enough. But an­oth­er White House de­feat in 2016 is a night­mare no Re­pub­lic­an wants to face.

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