Conservatives press GOP leaders to tough out talks on raising debt ceiling

GOP congressional leaders are heading for a clash with conservative lawmakers who demand a balanced-budget amendment before raising the $14.3 trillion national debt ceiling.

Some conservative lawmakers worry that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are too eager to strike a deal with Democrats and might settle for less than $2 trillion in spending cuts, without serious budgetary reform.

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More than a hundred House conservatives sent Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) a letter Monday laying out conditions to be met before a higher debt ceiling is agreed to.

The letter called for discretionary and mandatory spending cuts to halve the budget deficit next year, spending caps to hold Washington’s spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product and passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

“These are 103 people who have said if you do these things — and the devil is in the details — if you do cap-and-balance, we’ll strongly consider an increase in the debt limit,” a GOP aide said of the letter, signed by members of the House Republican Study Committee.

The signatories’ letter did not amount to an ultimatum and threat to vote against a debt-limit increase if their conditions are not met, the aide said.

But that is their next planned step. Conservative lawmakers and activists think the timing is ideal for passing a balanced-budget amendment and winning other big concessions from President Obama.

A conservative coalition will ask lawmakers to sign a pledge vowing to vote against raising the debt limit unless Monday’s demands are met.

“It’s our goal to form a coalition of as many conservative groups as we can find that would support a pledge to commit the signers not to vote for a debt-ceiling increase unless three conditions are met,” said Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a group that describes itself as promoting constitutional values and economic freedom.

If McConnell saw that many in his caucus made passage of the balanced-budget amendment a precondition, “he would recognize that as a leadership opportunity for him to play,” said Hanna.

“He is a very savvy and thoughtful observer of the political process and would see the opportunity for not merely leadership but legacy leadership, and I think he would come around if a groundswell of his conference signed this,” Hanna added.

Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, will help lead the push for the amendment before the debt-ceiling vote.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), lead sponsor of the balanced-budget amendment proposal, disappointed some conservatives by declining to sign a pledge saying his vote for a debt-ceiling increase depended on the amendment garnering 67 senators’ votes.

Hatch’s spokeswoman, Antonia Ferrier, said her boss is planning a big push that included a “legislative strategy, a communications strategy [of] speeches and interviews, and working with grassroots leaders.”

Andrew Roth, vice president for government affairs at the Club for Growth, said “there is a very, very healthy level of skepticism” among conservatives over whether Boehner and McConnell will be sufficiently tough in talks with the White House.

Vice President Biden told reporters last month that he saw negotiators zeroing in on “well above $1 trillion” in cuts.

Conservatives say $1 trillion or even $2 trillion in cuts would be insufficient, even with a strict cap on discretionary entitlement spending. They say a balanced-budget amendment is the best strategy for ensuring future fiscal discipline.

“That’s not sufficient,” Roth said of $2 trillion in spending cuts. Budgetary reforms were needed, too, he said.

McConnell and Boehner have been vague about their terms. McConnell has said Democrats must agree to “do something significant about deficit and debt,” and explained that that meant cuts and reforms that prompted more confidence at credit rating agencies about the nation’s fiscal future.

McConnell has called for spending caps and said Medicare spending should be cut, but he has not endorsed specific reforms.

Boehner said in a speech to the New York Economic Club that the spending cuts should be greater than the amount of increase in the debt limit. He also said the cuts should be worth “trillions, not just billions.”

Neither McConnell nor Boehner, however, has insisted on a balanced-budget amendment.

“Boehner has long supported a balanced-budget amendment. But it’s worth noting that a constitutional amendment would have to pass the Senate and be ratified by the states — a process that would take some time,” said a GOP aide who defended Boehner’s position.

A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote by the Senate and House and ratification by three-quarters of the states.

Hanna counters: “This provides a remarkable opportunity, because you’ve got a Democrat leader of the Senate who must deliver to a Democratic president a vote to support a debt-limit increase. It puts [Democrats] in a pressure cooker we haven’t seen before.”