Republican leaders and their conservative members don’t agree on much these days. They’re particularly at odds over the wisdom of using the national debt limit as leverage to force the country in a conservative direction. Conservatives are still gung ho about the idea. Their leaders balked at it yesterday.
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Debt Negotiations At The White House]
This creates an uncomfortable, public tension, for the party, as its top dogs politely try to smother their rank and file members, who think defaulting on the debt is either no big deal or not really going to happen — who argue that they can force deep spending cuts one way or another by refusing to raise the debt limit. Either Obama caves, and accepts their far-reaching cuts, or the Treasury department will have to start cutting services and payments to meet the borrowing statute.
But they’re of a single mind about one thing — pretty much the only thing holding the party together: Whatever happens to the debt limit, it’s President Obama, not the GOP, holding U.S. creditworthiness — and thus the entire economy — hostage.
“President Obama is holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage so he can continue his spending spree,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) at a press conference introducing legislation that would force the Treasury Department to prioritize credit and military payments if the debt limit isn’t raised. “We’re saying, ‘President Obama, is your spending spree really that important to you, that you’d put at risk the full faith and credit of the United States?’”
Across the Capitol, the top Republican in the Senate more subtly echoed this view.
“If the White House continues to insist on either tax hikes or default, then we’d send legislation to the President that requires him to propose spending cuts greater than the debt limit increase he requests,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a Wednesday morning floor speech.
The idea here is to flip the narrative that’s dominated the debt limit brinksmanship for weeks. But they’re coming at it from different directions.
GOP leaders would have you believe they caved because Obama was holding the debt limit hostage for a ransom of tax increases. That was too high a price, they argue, even for large, long-sough spending cuts — better to raise the debt limit with no policy strings attached. Conservatives like Bachmann, by contrast, have effectively ruled out ever voting to raise the debt limit.
They claim, dubiously, that the country can leave the debt ceiling where it is and avoid a default if Congress forces the Treasury department to abruptly cut spending from unspecified parts of the budget once its borrowing authority runs out. In their view, Obama’s refusal to accept their priorities means the country’s creditors might not get their interest payments on time, and is thus tantamount holding U.S. creditworthiness hostage.
Here, conservatives and GOP leaders part ways. As recently as last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) admitted that not raising the debt limit puts the U.S. economy in “an awful lot of jeopardy,” regardless of who gets paid first.
Two high-profile House conservatives, Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) grappled with this argument in different ways.
Gohmert says Boehner’s been lied to — the government can fire sale its property, raid the Social Security trust fund, and avoid default all without raising the debt limit, he claims. “The problem with the Speaker, and him saying that, is he believes the President. And I would encourage the Speaker not to believe the President anymore when the President says things like that.”
King isn’t so confident — he doesn’t know what will happen if the debt ceiling isn’t lifted: “I don’t know and I don’t want to see that scenario, but I think the best thing we can do is maintain the full faith and credit of the United States.”
The fight here is plainly within the GOP, and it appears to be an insoluble one. But instead of training fire on each other, they’re agreeing to just put this all on Obama and the Democrats by hoping nobody was paying attention these past months.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.