by Jonathan Strong 10 Feb 2014 post a comment
After storming out of the GOP's debt ceiling meeting and pacing furiously 100 yards down a hallway deep the bowels of the Capitol, South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan wheeled around to face a couple reporters that had managed to keep up with him.
“Why don't you talk to my son?” Duncan asked, pointing angrily at his black iPhone. “Tell him about the debt that he's going to pay. $17.3 trillion right now. This is him on the phone. He's a Clemson student, I'd be glad for you to explain how he's going to pay that back,” Duncan added, his voice full of sarcasm.
Duncan was irate about the plan Speaker John Boehner and the House GOP leadership team had just unveiled to raise the debt ceiling. Rather than use the must-pass vote to tackle rampant deficits, Boehner's plan would actually increase spending now and theoretically “pay for” the new spending with more sequester cuts five election cycles from now.
GOP lawmakers generally received the plan poorly, and the mood coming out of the meeting was grim.
“I don't think anybody grappled with anything. I just heard the same old arguments I've heard for three years,” said Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a close friend of Boehner's.
Nunes went on to make what is probably the best real-world case for the new proposal. “Nobody likes any of this. There's problems with every bill we put up. The leadership feels this one gives the best chance for Republicans and Democrats to vote for it to get to 218 votes.”
“What's that spoonful of sugar that you need to help this medicine go down?” asked Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, a top moderate voice in the GOP conference. “That's the elusive part of this thing. I don't envy Speaker Boehner. He's got a difficult job – nearly impossible – to bring 232 people together and find the votes that establishes the strength of our conference. We're still trying to find that magic formula,” he added.
After several weeks of trying to find a plan – any plan – that could garner 218 Republican votes, leadership moved on to plan B – putting members between a rock and a hard place.
The Boehner debt ceiling plan reverses cuts to veterans' benefits that were part of the Ryan-Murray budget deal. Normally, voting to raise the debt ceiling is politically toxic. Now voting against raising the debt ceiling is also voting to cut veterans' benefits.
The revised incentive structure was not lost on the Republican lawmakers, who complained loudly. “Look, people who never want to vote for the debt limit also don't want to vote against veterans,” Nunes said.
The predictable reaction on the right was, hey, we didn't support those veterans cuts in the first place. Now you want us to swallow a debt ceiling increase to get rid of them?
As the meeting turned slightly nasty – with barbs traded and accusations of bad faith – it became clear this thing wasn't even close to getting 218 Republicans.
It might be that wasn't the goal.
“At our retreat, leadership was saying they wanted to craft a plan that was 'no skin off the Democrats' backs.' That's a direct quote. And I think this accomplishes that,” said Rep. Matt Salmon.
As the meeting went on, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill to reverse the veterans' cuts – no debt ceiling in sight – indicating that significant numbers of Democratic votes could be coming in to bail out the GOP.
It's a far cry from the visions of reform that have captivated House Republicans in past debt ceiling fights. This time around, there's even a small faction on the party's right flank urging Boehner just to bring a “clean” debt ceiling to be done with the whole charade.
How did the Republicans get here, in a circular firing squad over a plan so relatively lame it's worse than the status quo?
Georgia Rep. Rob Woodall, a sophomore lawmaker who has quickly climbed the leadership ladder to a plum spot on the House Rules Committee, wondered the same thing.
“What in the world has happened between August of 2011 – when the president and the Senate were partners with us, to both raise the debt ceiling, and try to solve the problem – to today, where folks say 'no, clean debt ceiling. No problem, nothing to see here'?” he asked. “Drives me crazy.”