More Republicans Doubt that the Debt Limit Deadline Is Real

Since yesterday’s story about the rising Republican skepticism about our government funding crises, and the rising certitude that Barack Obama is making them worse on purpose, I’ve been asking Republicans who are not seen as “Tea Party” wacko birds whether the debt limit deadline is real. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says Oct. 17 is the deadline. That might be moved. But there’s a growing certitude among Republicans that any deadline is somewhat manufactured, and can be survived if the Treasury moves money around to service debt while shutting down other services.

“After Oct. 25, it gets a little difficult,” said California Rep. Devin Nunes. “After that it gets tough to mail Social Security payments.”

Nunes was assuming an Oct. 17 deadline, though. Not every Republican is—a skepticism that could drag out the timeline for a deal that funds the government, too. “One of the problems is that the Treasury historically has played games with the exact drop-dead date,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate who’s up for re-election next year. “Who knows if Oct. 17 truly is the day when we won’t be able to pay our bills, or if it’s a month later than that? Who knows?”

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a recently re-elected moderate, was skeptical about Lew’s warnings—and his credibility. “You have to scratch your head and wonder who the Treasury secretary is sometimes,” said Corker. “Most of the sophisticated people who buy Treasurys—look, there’s about 20 banks around the country that most of us who care about this call to find out when the real debt ceiling is. All of them know it’s not really on Oct. 17, OK? On the other hand, that’s the psychological view, and I don’t want to minimalize the debt ceiling.”

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told me that Jack Lew was the most partisan Treasury secretary he’d seen. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions echoed that, insisting that in the long run it was more important to cut long-term spending outlays then to worry about a debt deadline. “He should be giving assurances rather than hyping danger,” said Sessions. “What role is he fulfilling here, trying to enhance the economic position of the United States, or the president’s political position? I think Mr. Lew and the president need to watch their rhetoric. They absolutely have the money to pay the debt first. The Constitution requires it, as I read it. I do think the president should be assuring the world that the bond-holders will be getting their payment, instead of saying otherwise. In the long run, getting this country on a sound financial path is the best thing for America’s financial position in the world.”

The only Republican (in my small sample) who was fully confident about a deadline was Arizona Sen. John McCain. On Oct. 17, he said, “we’ll see how the markets react and see whether they’re wrong. I talk to people in New York who say the markets will react very negatively. Maybe they know something. I believe people who work in the markets.”

But that’s John McCain. Democrats are battled by his Republican colleagues. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told me that the financial community was finally starting to worry about the lack of progress toward a deal.

“They’re increasingly less confident because [the deadline]’s getting closer,” he said. “They can’t believe that the Tea Party—well, they can believe that the Tea Party would do this, but they can’t believe Republican leadership in the House will allow the Tea Party to have their way here. That’s why the markets have factored this in. But we’re seeing a rerun of 2011 where business isn’t investing, people aren’t going to embark in new capital loans, the SBA is frozen, people are walking away from businesses that would have created 12 new jobs a year or so—for what? So they can attach the 2012 Republican Party platform to a must-pass bill?”