GOP De-Escalates Debt Limit Fight

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The jig is up. Republicans are going to increase the debt limit. Probably for free.

And in the end, their change of heart took about two weeks.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who on January 4 warned that Republicans might force the country past the debt limit, now says “We will raise the debt ceiling. We’re not going to default on our debt.”

Influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer says Republicans should increase the debt limit in small increments, but without any real hope of using it to extract concessions.

The only thing left is for party leaders to talk a conservative rump of House Republicans through the stages of grief ahead of the deadline just over a month from now. That was ostensibly the purpose of the House Republican conference’s three-day retreat in Williamsburg, Va., which comes to an end this afternoon.Over the past 36 hours, Republican House members have been provided a blunt assessment of the consequences of breaching the debt limit, and batted around a variety of options that run the gamut from the most extreme form of hostage taking to effective surrender. In Rep. Paul Ryan’s words, they’ve set expectations — presumably quite low. What they haven’t heard yet is an edict from the top that the party must abandon even the pretense of using the debt limit as a source of leverage — that the “Boehner rule,” which requires a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit, is really, truly dead. And so the threat continues, however diminished.

The biggest tell of the week didn’t come in an official statement from party leaders or a tightly choreographed press event, but in a couple of glancing thoughts from Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) who moseyed over from the main lodge at the Kingsmill resort to the club house — where organizers confined the press — to chat with reporters about the state of affairs as of Thursday afternoon.

Fleming started off by cautioning his audience of reporters that House Republicans would be hard-pressed to pass a clean debt limit bill, and so would try to coalesce around a bill that both increases borrowing authority and cuts spending.

“I think the Republicans would have a real problem giving the president a clean debt ceiling, even … short term,” he said. “Maybe some would do it, but I think to get a majority of the majority vote, I think it’s impossible.”

Fleming was talking about the Hastert rule — the GOP’s principle that legislation shouldn’t come to the floor unless the majority of the conference supports it. But five minutes later Fleming gave up the ghost.

“I think that the majority of the majority Hastert rule comes out of a time when we had a Republican president,” he acceded. “When you have a Democrat president that’s a very hard thing to achieve sometimes — and not necessarily important.”

Got that? It will be very hard for Republicans to pass a Hastert-rule compliant debt limit bill, but who cares because the Hastert rule isn’t actually all that big a deal. It would probably be too disruptive to intra-conference politics for the party to simply drop the charade, so the House will pass … something. It could pair a debt limit increase with a grenade (like a significant spending cut) or a more symbolic measure. The likeliest option at this point is making a debt limit increase contingent upon Senate Democrats passing a budget resolution.

But whatever they do, the Senate will have its say. And if Democrats don’t like the contingency, they won’t have to swallow it.

“We could pass it [a debt limit bill] from the House to the Senate with what we want, and then the Senate could always revise and send it back and who knows, maybe there’d be enough Democrat votes to get it passed,” Fleming said.

House conservatives would thus get no ransom for increasing the debt limit. But if the Hastert rule no longer applies — and check out what leadership aides are saying about the Hastert rule — that doesn’t really matter. All that matters for the party leaders is that they let the right down gently. That may have been the ultimate purpose of the retreat.

“I have been very pleased, as someone who didn’t vote for the Speaker for leader, very impressed with the amount of input the leadership has sought from us,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). “I’m, if nothing else, very satisfied that regardless of how things turn out at the end of the day, that the conservatives had their voice in this.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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