Among House GOP freshmen, uncertainty about next steps on debt

Video: In an address Monday night, Speaker John Boehner said Republicans were up to the task of solving the debt crisis, adding that he hoped President Obama would join them in their effort.

The waning hours of the debt-ceiling debate have generated a proliferation of new proposals to solve the crisis. But for many of the House freshmen at the heart of the GOP opposition to a deal with President Obama, all these ideas amount to little more than displays of Washington treachery.

Some have derided the plan of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “The Pontius Pilate Plan.” A separate proposal by the Gang of Six has been referred to as the Gang of 666 Plan. Indeed, many of these freshmen see the urgent calls for compromise as yet another example of old Washington trying to corrupt their new thinking.

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President Obama told Americans the nation faced a 'deep economic crisis' if Democrats and Republicans could not reach a deal on spending, urging both sides to compromise. (July 25)

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As the Senate readied last Friday to vote on House Republicans’ “cut, cap and balance” plan, Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.) crossed the Capitol with a group of other Republican freshmen to watch the chamber take up the measure — and to entreat their Senate counterparts to support it.

Kelly, who represents a northwestern Pennsylvania district, urged his Keystone State colleague, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Scranton Democrat, that it was time to act on the problem and not discuss it any more. “I’ve been committeed to death,” Kelly recalled telling Casey.

He urged the senator to back House Republicans’ balanced-budget amendment proposal as opposed to a “Plan B” that would give a bipartisan 12-member committee the authority to decide what spending cuts to make.

“The American people have been committeed to death,” Kelly told Casey in the Senate chamber. “It’s time now to move on, and let’s go tackle the other problems that we have.”

The Senate voted 51 to 46 to table the measure. Casey and every other Senate Democrat present rejected the plan. With cut, cap and balance having hit a dead end — and with a potential default a little over a week away — where does Kelly now stand?

With the cut, cap and balance plan, he said Saturday as the debt-limit negotiations went into overtime.

“I don’t think the speaker has to do anything,” Kelly said. “We’ve passed legislation that allows the debt ceiling to rise. What is it about this plan that nobody understands? It allows everything to happen that everybody says needs to happen. The speaker’s done everything he can do. The House has done everything it could do. We passed it. We sent it to them. Now, what’s the holdup?”

“We gave them everything they want,” he added. “The only thing we can’t give them is courage.”

Like Kelly, more than a dozen House Republican freshmen expressed frustration in interviews over the weekend with the debt-ceiling debate. Their concerns are reflective of the broader dilemma facing House Republicans as the debt talks enter crunch time: Rank-and-file members haven’t figured out which way to turn now that their preferred option is off the table, and leaders have yet to show them the path forward.

Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), whose urban district includes a number of Wall Street professionals, said he’s very worried about the prospect of a national default. But Grimm said he’s not sure what more Republicans can offer, after the Senate rejected cut, cap and balance.

“Then what else is there?” he asked. “At that point, honestly, I don’t think there’s any more the House can do. If you don’t use something that’s similar to the cut, cap and balance approach, I don’t think anything else exists. So we can’t do anything more.”

Grimm said he hoped the Senate might take up the idea again, and said he would be open to some alterations in the plan — as long as it still promised caps on federal spending for the next few years.

Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), another freshman, suggested a plan by which Congress could raise the debt ceiling high enough to allow about two months of borrowing. In that time, he suggested, the House and Senate could sit down in a formal way and hammer out a compromise that pleased them both.

For now, he said, it was difficult to know exactly what he might support, since he didn’t feel enough details were available about what Democrats were insisting on.

“As far as where [Republicans] land, that can’t be determined until there’s a specific plan,” Webster said. “It’s hard to say what the other side wants.”

Despite the absence of a clear path forward, rank-and-file members have expressed firm support for their party’s leaders.

“I am absolutely prepared to support our speaker when that moment comes,” said freshman Rep. Nan A.S. Hayworth (R-N.Y.), who on Thursday hosted a meeting for fellow Republicans with financial analysts to warn of the real dangers of a default. “I think our fundamental principles are so clear that I have trouble imagining they would bring something to us that would violate them.”

But some members, particularly newer members, might reject a short-term solution on raising the debt ceiling — an idea that House Republican leadership has in recent days offered as its preferred option.

“I’m not interested in that,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who joined Congress in 2009 and authored the cut, cap and balance measure, said of a short-term debt-limit increase. “I want a solution, not a deal. That would be a deal.”

Freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said: “Everybody wants to only go through this pain once.”

Farenthold said that while his preferred option was cut, cap and balance, it was unclear what sort of agreement could win him over instead.

“That’s the home run,” he said of the cut, cap and balance plan. “What I could bring home as a double or a single, you know, I’ve yet to see. There is not a plan on the table.”

Another freshman, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), said that he’s waiting to see what kind of an agreement Boehner brings back, and that while a short-term deal could have its benefits, he takes seriously the leading credit rating agencies’ warnings against one.

“One part of me wouldn’t mind forcing this conversation every six months or year,” Huizenga said. “I think it sharpens the conversation. But I also sat through that Standard & Poor’s presentation” Thursday.

“I’m as concerned, if not more concerned, about what they’re going to say if we come back with anything that’s viewed anemic or short-term or not solving the problems,” he added.

Aside from actually nailing down a plan that can pass the House, there’s also the problem of what kind of support a final deal gets — and whether it ends up receiving the backing of more members of the president’s party than of Boehner’s.

That could be “a real political conundrum,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a five-term lawmaker and one of the House’s most vocal conservative members.

“If he ends up with a deal with more Democratic votes than Republican votes, I think the speaker has a real problem,” King said.

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