Conservatives Clear The Way For Boehner’s Six-Week Debt Limit Hike

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The conservative wing that has led Republicans into a government shutdown and to the brink of default has given its blessing to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) proposal unveiled Thursday to lift the debt ceiling for six weeks.

Arch-conservative lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-OH) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) quickly backed the plan. Outside groups like Heritage Action and activist Erick Erickson of RedState said they wouldn’t go after Republicans who voted for it. These conservatives have been calling the shots for the GOP during these crises.

“My understanding is that this is being driven by House conservatives who are quite reasonably saying listen, let’s focus on Obamacare, on winning the fight on Obamacare, on helping remedy the enormous harms Obamacare is inflicting on millions of Americans, and let’s push the debt ceiling a little further down the road so that it doesn’t distract us from the fight we’re right in the middle of now,” Cruz said on KYFO radio.

The logic is these conservatives want the GOP to keep fighting to unwind Obamacare in a continuing resolution, or CR, to reopen the many federal services that closed on Oct. 1. They believe the CR is the better venue to fight the battle. It is a retreat after they initially insisted on extracting policy concessions for any hike in the country’s borrowing limit ahead of the Oct. 17 deadline — a sign that they view the shutdown as a lesser political risk for pressuring Democrats to accede to conservative reforms.

“We do not support clean debt ceiling increases, but because Heritage Action is committed to giving House Leadership the flexibility they need to refocus the debate on Obamacare we will not key vote against the reported proposal,” said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham.

President Barack Obama is open to a short-term debt limit hike as long as there are no extraneous policy measures attached, a White House official said in response to the GOP plan. And he won’t negotiate with Republicans until they reopen the government.

What’s less clear is how a brief extension of the debt ceiling would help Republicans chip away at Obamacare. In the last two weeks, Senate Democrats have rejected no less than four House-passed bills to fully defund the health care law or dismantle parts of it. After weathering some four years of attacks over the law, they have no intention of surrendering two months before its central provisions take effect. And the shutdown has been especially harmful to the GOP, according to a slew of polls. Conservatives still lack an endgame.

“It seems the GOP has taken a hint and will continue the fight on Obamacare by punting the debt ceiling discussion six weeks to Thanksgiving,” RedState’s Erickson wrote in a blog post. “But we must keep the fight on Obamacare. If the CR and debt ceiling were combined, we could not hold the line. This now lets us hold the line and get the conversation back to Obamacare.”

Some of the more moderate House Republicans and Senate Republicans don’t want to sustain the unpopular shutdown while putting off the debt limit deadline. They’d prefer to combine it with a continuing resolution. But that idea would probably be a nonstarter in the House as it would alienate the intransigent conservatives who forced leaders into this mess. So Senate Democrats may be compelled to accept the short-term debt limit hike on its own. But aides say it fundamentally changes nothing and that Republicans are merely delaying the inevitable.

“Republicans may let one hostage go, but they are keeping a gun to the head of the other, while reserving the right to kidnap the first one again in a few weeks,” said a senior Democratic aide.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.
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