By Russell Berman - 02/07/11 11:00 AM EST
Now comes the hard part for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
In the first month of the 112th Congress, the new House Republican majority voted unanimously to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law, cut congressional budgets and set the stage for spending showdowns that will dominate the spring.
“We have to work our will in the House. We have to work with our colleagues in the Senate and put something on the president’s desk,” Boehner said last week.
Perhaps no issue will test Boehner as much as authorizing more debt, which pits the harsh reality of governance against the core promise that 87 House Republican freshmen made to their constituents: We will stop borrowing money we don’t have.
“Here’s the hard reality for us: There are no simple answers to this,” said freshman Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
There are no simple political answers for Boehner either. He has to win big spending cuts if he is to retain the confidence of his conference and the allegiance of the voters who entrusted him with the Speaker’s gavel. He must be fiscally aggressive without appearing reckless, while being practical and level headed without seeming to sell out to Beltway assumptions that voters clearly rejected. Finally, he must lead his conference’s rank-and-file, not follow them, and ensure that they do not walk away from him.
Whether there are answers or not, the fiscal reckoning looms ever larger as the debt ticks up toward the current ceiling, which the Treasury expects to reach as early as the beginning of April.
Increasing the debt ceiling has become a routine congressional action in the last quarter-century as the federal debt has risen to staggering new heights. Since 1985, Congress has lifted the ceiling more than 30 times.
The politics of the issue have grown more perilous with each passing year, and no House Republican has voted to raise the debt ceiling since October 2008, when the action was paired with the equally unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program.
At stake, simply put, is the full faith and credit of the United States government. Congress has never failed to raise the debt ceiling, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned in dire terms that a first-ever default would have “catastrophic” economic consequences.
Interest rates would “rise sharply,” he warned. Home values would fall. The dollar would be weakened. The federal government would begin to stop payments on everything from military salaries to Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Conservatives decried Geithner’s letter as overly dramatic, even apocalyptic. The Treasury Department has a number of tools, which Geithner acknowledged, that could prevent an immediate default and buy at least a few weeks.
“Then we’re in uncharted territory,” said William Gale, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Boehner’s public rhetoric illustrates his precarious balance. On the one hand, the Speaker has said Republicans would not vote for an increase unless it is coupled with “serious reductions in spending” and budget controls.
At the same time, he joined Geithner in cautioning against default. He famously described the debt-ceiling vote as an “adult moment” for the GOP last fall, and last week said that failing to act was not an option.
“That would be a financial disaster not only for our country, but for the worldwide economy,” Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Remember, the American people on Election Day said we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs. You can’t create jobs if you default on the federal debt.”
Yet that sentiment is where the divisions in the House Republican Conference begin. The conservative Republican Study Committee, which boasts a membership that comprises two-thirds of the Republican Conference, is pushing a bill that would forestall a “must pass” vote in Congress by giving the Treasury Department added authority to prioritize debt payments and prevent a full default if the ceiling were reached.
The legislation “assures lenders that their investments in the United States government are entirely safe,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), the lead House sponsor. “Congress will still have to deal with the issue of the debt limit. It simply takes a default off the table.”
Geithner has called the legislation, originally authored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), “unworkable” and potentially “quite harmful.”
Boehner has ignored the proposal, and GOP leadership aides are privately dismissive of it. One staffer said the bill would give “unprecedented power to the White House and the Treasury Department to pick who’s going to get paid.”
Since the November election, a handful of Republicans, most notably the conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, have voiced outright opposition to lifting the limit, regardless of the spending cuts attached.
Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus will hold its first meeting of the new Congress Feb. 17, and the debt ceiling will be at the top of the agenda.
Exactly how many “no” votes Boehner is starting with remains unclear.
“It’s not three people, I can tell you that. It’s not some tiny insignificant group,” Lankford said.
Complicating Boehner’s challenge is the expectation that Democrats will withhold their votes for any debt-ceiling bill that is paired with deep spending cuts.
House Democrats’ point man for the budget, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, said, “I think it’s a big mistake to threaten the fragile economic recovery by playing politics with the full faith and credit of the United States government.”
Like the tax-cut deal during the lame-duck session, the debt ceiling debate could open up a rift between the Obama administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The brightest spotlight will be on the Republican newcomers, many of whom will have to reconcile their no-compromise tone on the campaign trail with the predictable pressures of governing in the majority.
“If there is a vote put forward to increase the national debt ceiling and that is all the legislation does, I think it will fail overwhelmingly,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), the president of the freshman class and a representative on the House leadership team.
“I did not come to Congress to increase debt. That’s not why I came,” Lankford said.
Lankford advocates a proposal that has won support from other Republicans — to attach a “hard spending cap” to the debt-ceiling increase.
House GOP leaders say the plan for the debt-ceiling bill will depend on what kind of cuts are achieved through the short-term funding measure and, possibly, the 2012 budget. “These are all interrelated,” a leadership aide said.
Boehner’s office declined to discuss specific proposals. “That’s a discussion our members will have with each other and the American people over the coming weeks,” spokesman Michael Steel said.
While freshmen like Scott and Lankford are keeping the pressure on Boehner to exact significant cuts in exchange for their vote, other Republicans are giving the new Speaker more leeway.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), one of three first-term Republicans named to the Appropriations Committee, said, “I realize I’ve only been here a month, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in our leadership.”
Peter Schroeder, Michael M. Gleeson and Erik Wasson contributed to this article.