Dancing on the Ceiling

How Republicans are framing the debate about the debt ceiling and Democrats are playing along.

Marco Rubio. Click image to expand.
Marco Rubio

Washington’s latest guns-a-blazin’ battle is over whether Congress will raise the debt limit. Five months ago, there was no disagreement: Congress would raise the debt ceiling. The journey from there to here is a case study of how conservatives decide what Washington debates—and, maybe, how Democrats have learned to play along.

In December, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. It would have been possible for them to raise the debt limit then, months before the Treasury Department says the federal government will hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit (the latest estimate is that the limit will be reached in May). But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a pass on the vote. “I want the Republicans to have some buy-in on the debt,” he said. “They’re going to have a majority in the House. I think they should have some kind of a buy-in on the debt.”

Debt limit votes are, in political terms, somewhere between arsenic and strychnine. Democrats raised the limit in December 2009 by razor-thin margins in the House and Senate, and some of the people who’d voted to raise the limit lost their re-election bids. And in December, only the most wild, untamed Republicans were saying they’d oppose a debt ceiling increase. Republicans were saying, on the record, that they would bring a “clean” limit-raising bill to the floor.

This changed. Conservatives looked at the debt limit vote as one of three leverage opportunities—Democrats call them “hostage” opportunities— to force votes on the cuts they want. The first opportunity was the continuing resolution for the current year’s spending, and GOP priorities like the defunding of the Affordable Care Act were left out of that. The second opportunity would come with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. And yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called the debt limit one of “three bites at the apple.”

This is why the Republican game of the moment is “Make Me a Deal for My Career-Threatening Debt Limit Vote.” Most Republicans are playing; only a few have said there’s nothing that could tempt them. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has written that he wants the debt limit vote “accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” Other Republicans replace the and with an or. They’ll take one of these things.

“I will ask the leadership to use the leverage to get real spending caps across the board,” Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., told me today.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who’s also voting against the continuing resolution, said he wouldn’t vote for the increase unless it came with that much-desired cut to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. “I draw that line on the debt ceiling,” he said. “Let’s do something important.”

Republicans are comfortable making this ask because nobody wants to cast this vote. Last week, Dick Armey’s Tea Party group FreedomWorks released a poll on the debt ceiling, conducted across 14 swing states by Republican uber-pollster Frank Luntz. Nothing in there makes the vote look easy. Sixty-nine percent of all voters opposed raising the debt ceiling—conversation over. When asked whether they’d be OK with raising the limit if it was part of a deal that “includes very significant reductions in spending, reforms the main causes of growing debt, and implements tough restrictions on future spending,” 54 percent of voters were still against it.

The poll went even further than that. Voters were asked whether they supported the Full Faith and Credit Act, a proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would sidestep the debt limit debate by forcing the government to pay its debts before it paid anything else. Democrats have derided this as the “pay China first” bill. When he was asked about it in February, Cantor blew it off: “I just don’t understand how that mechanism is consistent with the notion we are a nation of laws.”

In Luntz’s poll, voters support the Toomey bill 55 percent to 17 percent.

“When you ask them if they prefer this option, or that option, they say ‘Nah, screw that,’ ” said FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon. “The big thing people are looking for is balancing the budget in a 10-year window. But the debt ceiling vote and the budget vote are morphing into one giant beast. If you ran on a Tea Party mantra, it’s going to be very tough for you to vote for this without explaining how you balance the budget in 10 years.”

There are three likely outcomes. One: America defaults on its debt, and all of the nightmarish things Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is predicting actually happen, with Republicans taking blame. Two: The debt ceiling is raised, with Republicans getting mostly toothless concessions. Three: The debt ceiling is raised without concessions, but with Democrats providing the margin of victory, a critical hit to House Speaker John Boehner’s machismo.

Nobody wants that first scenario to come true. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is a freshman who’s criticized the White House’s budget for not balancing the budget in 10 years. He thinks any attempt to tie the debt vote to structural spending reform is basically nuts.

“If what they [House Republicans] want is for the average American to think that they are literally willing to risk the entire country, our entire reputation, for some narrow function, then they’ll do it,” he said. “There are other vehicles, other moments in the appropriations process, in the legislative process, to do that. A few disciplined individuals can completely bollix up the Senate. But I should probably stop there.”

It’s not that Democrats like being in this position, or like that Republicans are in this position. But they talk about the debt vote the way Reid did when he kicked it down the road. Republicans will get a poison pill of their very own. “This is no longer screwing around,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “This is not talking to Tea Party people in some high school cafeteria. This is international finance.”

Blumenauer is one of a few dozen Democrats—so far—who has signed a letter pledging to support a “clean” debt limit increase, i.e., upping the limit without making extra promises. He and several other Democrats did not say what things the GOP could attach to the vote that would cause them to oppose it. Republicans still have that leverage—Democrats are more existentially afraid of the consequences of saying no. But the purpose of the Democratic promise, according to Blumenauer, is to “empower” Boehner to win without pandering to the base.

Republicans could do that by demanding concessions that sound good but don’t immediately balance the budget. This is a numbers game. To break cloture, Reid needs to get 60 votes for the debt limit increase—exactly as many votes as it got in the slim 2009 victory. Boehner can afford to lose dozens of Republicans if Democrats—starting with the Democrats who’ve signed that letter—vote for an increase. So some small number of Republicans may get to take home something that looks like a promise to never, ever let spending get out of control.

That can be anything. Some Hill aides have suggested that a spending cap proposed by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., could be packaged with the vote, giving Republicans the fig leaf they need. That’s not perfect. One GOP aide jokingly referred to it as the “Re-Elect McCaskill Act,” and one pointed out that it wouldn’t go into effect for 10 years (the cap would actually go into effect in 2013), * making it the latest in a storied line of toothless spending caps and pay-as-you-go rules. But that might be a better deal than a commitment to a Balanced Budget Amendment. Not only can’t that pass the Senate; it would make Paul Ryan’s budget unconstitutional. Democrats figure that Republicans, at some point, will declare victory and go home.

“If it gets down to it,” suggested Blumenauer, “I think there’s a majority in the House and Senate that would [vote to] avoid the train wreck.”

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Correction, April 15, 2011: This article originally paraphrased a critic of the CAP Act who said it would not go into effect for 10 years. It would go into effect in 2013. (Return to the corrected sentence.)