The PJ Tatler

GOP Strategists Urge Restraint on Debt Ceiling Fight

Republican campaign consultants are urging GOP members of the House to forgo any messy fights on raising the debt limit in favor of concentrating on trying to take the Senate in 2014.

The Hill reports:

“What Republicans have to realize [is] the political winds are in our direction. We can’t risk changing the winds at this stage,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “You can shut down the Obama agenda completely if you have the Senate.”

A GOP decision on the debt ceiling is likely to come out of the annual House retreat scheduled for Jan. 29 in Maryland. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has told Congress he expects the government could be in danger of missing payments by early March, giving lawmakers a narrow window to find another borrowing boost.

“The only way you lose the House is if Dems intercept a Hail Mary pass on the debt ceiling,” another GOP strategist said. “If you lose the House, you open the door to everything.”

At the same time, GOP tacticians acknowledge that the party cannot look weak in the debt ceiling fight and simply grant the president the “clean” hike he wants. Furthermore, the timing of the fight means members facing conservative primary challenges will face a tough dilemma.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in December that the party would not accept “nothing” for the debt ceiling and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he could not imagine a clean increase.

Tea Party and outside conservative groups said this week they are still formulating their approach. Feisty outside groups have helped pull congressional Republicans to the right in several past battles, but they came under intraparty criticism — most notably from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — for pushing the GOP into the ill-fated shutdown fight over ObamaCare.

With the debt limit looming as the next battleground, conservative forces are still looking for a policy win, but are not drawing any lines in the sand.

“Conservatives have the expectation that the debt ceiling is an important tool to reduce the size and scope of the government,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. “That’s what conservatives are going to be looking for…that’ll be the expectation from conservative voters.”

Even so, Holler acknowledged that no clear overall strategy has crystallized around the debt limit yet.

Might President Obama be more amendable to negotiations on the debt ceiling considering how much trouble he’s in with the voters over Obamacare?

It’s a sexy idea and may be worth exploring. Obama no longer has the political chops to “demand” much of anything, much less an unprecedented “clean” debt limit vote — not with his approval stuck in the upper 30s. A dollar for dollar trade on an increase in debt for cuts in spending may be asking a lot, but some formula that continues to cut spending should be explored.

But it is very likely that this approach will be rejected by many in the House. In fact, the debt ceiling fight may be more of an intraparty war than a conflict with President Obama:

Some conservatives, however, are sounding as combative as ever.

Tea Party conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) made light of the warnings coming from those who are urging the party to wait until after the election before fighting on the debt again.

“It’s the same ones that you always hear….cower in the corner and wait,” he said. “If Republicans want to win, we need to show what we stand for.”

Huelskamp said he wants to push for a limitation that no new debt would be used to fund ObamaCare.

But that kind of talk discomfits many strategists. One said that the GOP ought to try to focus media attention solely on the failings of ObamaCare, or on other hot-button electoral issues.

“I want it to be whatever is bothering swing voters the most, their core complaint,” the long-time strategist said. “It has to be something that is not extreme, so even CBS News cannot say Republicans are making extreme threats.”

The key, as with the government shutdown vote, will be Democrats. A sizable number of Democrats will have to sign off on the debt ceiling vote in order for it to pass the House. Assuming that there will be 60-80 GOP congressmen who won’t vote for a debt ceiling increase of any kind, a comparable number of Democrats will have to bail out Speaker Boehner and vote with Republicans. This probably means that suggestions like preventing any funds from the debt increase going to fund Obamacare aren’t going to be adopted.

It is also doubtful that any significant cuts to entitlements will be approved. More likely, modest cuts in the budget’s out years — exactly the sort of thing that angered the Tea Party in the budget deal — will be adopted.

House right wingers probably can’t kill a deal. But they can widen the chasm that separates the establishment from the Tea Party, which does not bode well for Republican prospects in the 2014 midterms.