Debt-ceiling victory comes with a price for House Republicans

Debt-ceiling victory comes with a price for House Republicans

By almost any measure, House Republicans scored a major victory with the debt-limit deal, but it is a win that could come with its own political costs.

The agreement signed on Tuesday satisfied two of the GOP’s longstanding demands: that spending cuts exceed the increase in the debt limit, and that taxes do not go up.

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Yet the near-collapse of Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE’s (R-Ohio) own proposal last week raised lingering questions about whether the Tea Party can be part of a governing majority, and the “messy” sausage-making, in the words of President Obama, arguably reflected worse on congressional Republicans than it did on Democrats. 

 Public opinion favored the president throughout the process, and Obama was able to successfully portray the House GOP as the chief obstacle to the deal that eluded Washington until the eleventh hour.

While BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE easily won enough Republican support for the final deal, the Speaker stumbled in the bigger test of passing his own legislation. Boehner prevailed after a day’s delay only after revising the bill to mollify conservatives, narrowly avoiding the kind of embarrassing defeat that could have threatened his Speakership.

Boehner allies grumbled about the fix, saying it weakened the GOP’s negotiating position and underscored that the conference was beholden to its most conservative members.  


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“We burned a timeout,” Rep. Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackFunding fight imperils National Guard ops Overnight Defense: 6B Pentagon spending bill advances | Navy secretary nominee glides through hearing | Obstacles mount in Capitol security funding fight GOP gambles with Pelosi in opposing Jan. 6 commission MORE (R-Ark.) said of the costly delay. Another Republican lawmaker said the change led to a “more liberal” final agreement, and The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that “Republicans are not looking like adults to whom voters can entrust the government.”

In the run-up to the climactic vote on Monday, GOP lawmakers tried to put the best face on an ugly process. 

“Boehner’s leadership style is to let everybody have a say, to let people speak their minds. That sometimes makes it messier. In my book, that makes it better,” said Rep. Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithGOP lawmakers press social media giants for data on impacts on children's mental health Lawmakers press federal agencies on scope of SolarWinds attack House Republicans urge Democrats to call hearing with tech CEOs MORE (Va.), a freshman who voted against the final legislation. “The Founding Fathers didn’t intend this to be a smooth, easy process. They intended it to be a clash of ideas, and that’s what it is.”

The key test of the process was that the default crisis was averted, Griffith said.

“It was accomplished,” he said. “So it works.”

Democratic leaders who reluctantly signed on to the deal signaled simultaneously that they would not give up their attacks on Republicans for driving the U.S. to the brink of default in the first place.

“We are only at this point because the far right wing, for the first time in American history, has chosen to hold our economy hostage in order to enact a radical, ideological agenda far out of step with the majority of Americans,” the second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), said in a floor speech announcing his support for the bipartisan accord.

 “If nothing else, these months have shown the American people who puts our country’s welfare first—and who would rather have ideological purity at all costs,” Hoyer said.

 The next election is still more than a year off, however, and complaints about process often get subsumed in the larger campaign debate over policies and personalities. 

 “Who knows what can happen later? I feel pretty good,” said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a Tea Party-backed freshman who supported both Boehner’s initial proposal and the negotiated agreement.

In a nod to conservative concerns, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorBottom line Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention Cantor: 'Level of craziness' in Washington has increased 'on both sides' MORE (R-Va.) avoided outright celebration of the bill, even as they pointed out how much the party had won in the agreement.

Indeed, it fell to dejected Democrats to point out that on substance, the legislation leaned heavily to the right. Democrats agreed to deep spending cuts, gave up their insistence on guaranteed new revenues and set a precedent for linking an increase in the debt limit to austerity measures.

GOP leaders argued that despite the bumpy final turn, the broader narrative of the debt deal — that a Washington culture addicted to federal spending had begun to cut in earnest — worked in their favor.

“By sending 87 new Republicans to the Congress this year, the American people sent a message and have begun to change the direction of this country by stopping the spending and starting the saving,” Cantor said in a statement. “And this measure that cuts spending and puts in place long-term fiscal reforms marks the first big change we have accomplished.”

In contrast to last week, the complaints in the wake of the final deal were muted.

“Could it have been a bigger win for Republicans? Yes,” said one House GOP leadership aide. But, the aide continued, “We literally changed the trajectory of Congress.

“Is there potential short-term fallout from that? Maybe,” the aide added, while contending that the notion of House Republicans as the obstacles to a bigger deal was not necessarily a bad thing. 

“The American people wanted us to be obstacles to the administration’s plans for increased spending and increased taxes.”