McConnell has Senate Tea Party problem

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not the only GOP leader in Washington with a Tea Party problem.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is coming under some Tea Party pressure of his own in the debate over deficit reduction and raising the debt limit.

Tea Party-backed lawmakers are pushing McConnell to insist on passage of a balanced budget amendment in exchange for allowing an increase in the debt limit.

McConnell has resisted, however. He argues that a balanced budget amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, simply doesn’t have enough votes to pass the upper chamber. But this has put him out of step with some of the hard-charging conservative freshmen in the upper chamber.

Staffers for conservative senators recently met with Senate Republican leadership staff to discuss strategy for the balanced budget amendment. One of McConnell’s aides made clear that the leader would not demand passage of the amendment in exchange for raising the debt limit, according to a GOP source familiar with the meeting.

The demands by Tea Party senators for passage of the amendment before raising the debt limit is “not helpful” to McConnell’s effort to lead his party, one GOP senator said.

Lawmakers who vow to oppose the debt-limit increase in the absence of a balanced budget amendment passing are bluntly telling McConnell that he’ll have fewer votes to count on for any deal he negotiates with the president, the source said. The senator added the chances of garnering the requisite two-thirds vote in the upper chamber for the amendment are very slim.

Insistence on passage of a balanced budget amendment makes it virtually impossible for McConnell to satisfy conservatives, the lawmaker said.

But proponents of the balanced budget amendment say it is the only safeguard that can ensure the country will not fall into fiscal trouble in the future. They say the only way it can pass is if as many Republicans as possible take a strong stand in support of it.

Heading off conservatives’ criticism, McConnell has taken an outspoken and aggressive approach to the debt-limit talks.

On Thursday he challenged President Obama to visit the Capitol that same day to meet with the Senate Republican conference to discuss what McConnell call the political reality of tax increases passing the Senate.

“That way we can hear directly from Senate Republicans … why what he’s proposing will not pass,” McConnell said.

It’s the second time in a week McConnell directly challenged Obama on the Senate floor.

On Thursday of last week, McConnell criticized the president as missing in action from the debt talks.

“It’s worth asking: Where in the world has President Obama been for the past month?” McConnell asked.

McConnell met with Obama at the White House Monday afternoon but as of late Thursday there were no plans for setting up negotiations between them and Boehner. McConnell has told the White House that he’s not interesting in negotiating while tax increases are on the table.

“Until the president comes off his desire to raise hundreds of billions in tax hikes there’s nothing to negotiate. No meetings are planned,” said a Senate GOP aide.

But it remains to be seen whether this hard line will be enough to please Tea Party conservatives in the Senate.

They’re pushing McConnell to sign the cut, cap and balance pledge, which has the support of dozens of conservative activist groups. They include a slew of Tea Party groups and organizations that work closely with the Tea Party, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. 

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said his boss has taken an outspoken stance on the debt-limit since last year.

“That’s been consistent. He’s been hot on this issue. He said since last year the debt ceiling provides a unique opportunity to do something on the debt,” Stewart said.

Stewart said McConnell has also been clear in laying out what is needed to get his vote: Reductions in spending that are locked in; spending caps over the near term; and serious reform of entitlement over the long term.

“None of that has been agreed to so he hasn’t agreed to anything,” Stewart said.  

Twelve conservative senators, including four members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, have signed the pledge. It states signatories will oppose increasing the debt limit unless Congress agrees to substantial spending cuts, enforceable spending caps and passes a balanced budget amendment.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a member of the Tea Party Caucus, who played the role of powerbroker in the 2010 Senate GOP primaries, has declared it crucial for Republicans to sign the pledge.

“I'm telling every presidential candidate, if your name isn't on this list, don't come see me,” DeMint has said.

DeMint has stopped short of saying he will campaign against vulnerable GOP incumbents who decline to sign the pledge but on Sunday told CNN: “Any member of the House or the Senate who doesn't understand we need to balance our budget probably shouldn't be there.”

DeMint on Thursday says there’s a difference between lawmakers who sign the pledge and those who don’t.

“The people who signed the pledge are the ones that are committed to fight until we get the right solution,” he said.

When asked about Republican leaders declining to sign the pledge, DeMint said: “They’ll have to explain that.”

“We’re going to have millions of Americans behind us and we’re just getting started, it’s the difference between talk and commitment.”

When asked about the balanced budget amendment during an ABC News interview Sunday, McConnell said he has struck an agreement to vote on it during week of July 18.

McConnell said it was “an important step in the right direction”

But McConnell said the balanced budget amendment is not a suitable solution to the debt-limit standoff with Obama.  

“It would not eliminate the challenge that we have before us, which is to cut spending now, and that's what these negotiations in connection with the request of the president who has asked us to raise the debt ceiling are about,” he told ABC News.