Tea Partiers split over debt strategy

Tea Partiers split over debt strategy

Tea Party activists are split between opposing any new increase to the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and tying an increase to spending cuts, caps and a balanced-budget amendment.

On one side is the Tea Party Patriots group, which is urging its supporters to sign a “no debt increase” pledge. On the other side are Tea Party-related groups with significant GOP establishment backing, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Tea Party Express has joined this side.

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These groups have joined a coalition calling for “Cut, Cap and Balance” to be the condition for a raising of the debt ceiling.

This approach, developed by the Republican Study Committee, calls for “substantial cuts in spending that will reduce the deficit next year and thereafter,” “enforceable spending caps that will put federal spending on a path to a balanced budget” and congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

Six months ago, many freshman House GOP members were calling for no debt-ceiling increase, while the White House position was a “clean” increase.

In a sense, both positions have moved toward a compromise. The White House in April convened the Biden debt talks as an acknowledgment that some deficit controls would be needed to get a debt-ceiling increase. On the right, most groups and members of Congress have moved toward exchanging spending cuts for a debt-ceiling increase.

FreedomWorks this week established its own “Tea Party Debt Commission” to come up with a plan to meet the "cut, cap and balance" framework.

The commission is to propose a way to balance the budget within no more than 10 years without raising taxes. Its 18 members will come from key electoral states and will make a proposal by the end of 2012.

FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon said that even if the "cut, cap and balance" framework is adopted by Aug. 2, the long-term debt problem will still need to be addressed with specific policies. This is the reason for the debt commission.

He said there is no “unified” Tea Party debt-ceiling position, although the activists agree in prioritizing shrinking the deficit. Brandon said the Tea Party Patriots position of “just say no” is flawed. “I just don’t think it is very realistic,” he said.

He noted that breaching the debt ceiling would mean an overnight cut in federal spending of 40 percent. However, he added, using the debt ceiling to get items like a balanced-budget amendment would be a “sea change” in public policy.

During a recent conference with grassroots leaders, he said activists were enthusiastic about "cut, cap and balance" and the Tea Party Debt Commission. Along with the Republican Study Committee, he noted, FreedomWorks was instrumental in formulating the "cut, cap and balance" approach.

The group has its own proposals, such as eliminating the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development, but wants to use its commission hearings to solicit its members input on which specific cuts are most popular.

This carefully developed plan will be highly useful in the 2012 elections, Brandon said. It needs about six months to complete thorough field hearings, he explained.

Tea Party-related group Americans for Prosperity signed onto the "cut, cap and balance" pledge a few weeks ago.

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Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity said that most Tea Party activists have abandoned the “just say no” approach.

“We think this should be viewed as an opportunity. We think the 'just say no' approach doesn’t give you as much leverage,” he said.

Kerpen said the only big group in the other camp is the Tea Party Patriots. “Tea Party Express and hundreds of other local groups favor 'cut, cap and balance,' " he said. He added that few lawmakers are now demanding no lifting of the debt ceiling but acknowledged that straight refusal is popular with the public.

Americans for Prosperity has its own recommendations for the debt-ceiling increase, and Kerpen spells those out in a National Review essay this week.

They want the “cuts” in "cut, cap and balance" to focus on specific program terminations and agencies' budgets slashed, and to include the end of the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board set up by the Obama healthcare reform initiative. The group also argues that Medicaid block-granting can be accomplished now as a condition for a debt-ceiling increase.

The approaches contrast with that of the Tea Party Patriots. In a flurry of emails to supporters, the Patriots are urging a “no debt ceiling” increase stance by linking to www.nodebtincrease.com.

“The politicians try to scare the American people by using rhetoric like 'draconian cuts,' but imagine how 'draconian' the cuts will be when our creditors decide suddenly to stop lending us money. Forty cents of every federal dollar is borrowed. Either we cut spending our way, or our creditors will force us to do it their way. Which way do you prefer?” one email stated.

“Therefore, if we raise the debt ceiling by $2 trillion, as they want to do, all we can say for sure is that we will be $16.3 trillion in debt instead of $14.3 trillion. How exactly does that remove us from the unsustainable path?” another asked.