Boehner’s trial on debt talks lies with newest members of his own party

July 21, 2011

For House Speaker John A. Boehner, striking a debt-ceiling deal with President Obama on a historic package of spending cuts may turn out to be the easy part of rising to the occasion.

After the handshakes and the speeches and the uneasy congratulations, Boehner (R-Ohio) would still face the monumental task of having to sell the agreement to his flock of restive House Republicans, especially the 87 freshmen, who will have wanted something more, or different or, maybe, nothing at all.

And if interviews this week with many freshmen are any indication, the group seemed far from ready to agree on a deal.

Some were demanding highly unlikely concessions in exchange for their support, and those who said they did want a deal weren’t sure what kind of deal they would take. “We need to do the right thing,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.). So what kind of a deal would that be? “We don’t know.”

Most of the new Republican lawmakers have spent their short political lives defining themselves by what they are against on questions of spending and debt. Now, with time running short in the debt-ceiling debate, they seemed unprepared to say what kind of compromise they are willing to live with, and many are dismissive of the idea that default could mean calamity for the fragile economy.

“Look. I have no doubt the sun’s going to come up on August 3rd” even without a deal, said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.). “I really believe that your alarm on August 3rd will go off and the sun will be shining. And I’m willing to bet you’ll still have milk in your refrigerator.”

Southerland and other freshmen have argued that the government could pay some of its bills, including interest on its existing debts, with incoming tax revenue even without raising the debt limit. Increasing the limit, he said, may be the bigger problem.

“What is true is that if we do not change the culture of Washington, D.C., the United States of America will cease,” he said.

Some who say they would be willing to vote for a debt-ceiling increase attach conditions that almost guarantee that they will end up in the “no” column.

Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.), for instance, said he wanted to see a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. In addition, he wanted a loosening of the laws that protect the endangered Mexican spotted owl. That would mean more logging in New Mexico, Pearce said — which would mean new tax revenue for the government.

Could all that really be done before Aug. 2?

“We could pass the bill [on the owls] today, and people would start to work today, within seven days,” Pearce said.

Among the few hopeful signs for Boehner on Thursday was a newly vocal ally in the freshman class, Rep. Nan A.S. Hayworth (R-N.Y.) “It is up to the House and the Senate and the president to come to agreement on this — as we will,” Hayworth said. “Inherently, that will involve the assent of members of both parties.”

Hayworth is leading an effort to convince her colleagues of the dangers of default if they reject the deal. On Thursday, she hosted a briefing in which analysts from four top financial firms, including Standard & Poor’s and J.P. Morgan Chase, outlined the consequences of missing the Aug. 2 deadline.

About 40 Republicans attended the briefing, where they were warned to expect a grave economic fallout if Wall Street did not see both a short-term deal to avoid default as well as a long-term plan to curb spending.

But in an odd way, the alarms about impending economic crisis may only complicate Boehner’s problems. Earlier this year, he cut a deal that averted a government shutdown, shaving a historic $38 billion in potential spending from the federal budget. At the time, there were similar concerns about the the economic repercussions if there was no deal. Still, 59 Republicans voted against it. And many of those who did support it were quickly remorseful.

“We got gamed early on when we got here,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), who voted for that bill. He, like other Republicans, was upset that only $352 million of the cuts would actually come in the current fiscal year. “You know, it’s ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ ” Boehner’s pool of persuadables is considerably shrunken from the days of the deal that averted the shutdown.

Maybe the best he can hope for is that there are enough members concerned enough about avoiding a shutdown that they are willing to set aside their considerable doubt about the deal.

Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), for instance, said he was intrigued by a proposal from the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six.” It included both trillions in spending cuts but also the removal of tax loopholes that might produce billions in new revenue.

That sort of deal is “not all that I would want. It’s not 100 percent of a victory,” Grimm said. But, “I can live with that. That’s called governing,” he said.

Read more on PostPolitics

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Democrats fuming as Obama, Boehner rush to make a deal

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