GOP dissent complicates path to resolving debt-ceiling crisis

The president, the speaker of the House, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and Moody’s credit-rating agency all say that a failure to raise the U.S. debt ceiling by Aug. 2 would be an economic catastrophe and must be avoided.

Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford (R-Ark.) thinks they’ve got it wrong.

Crawford, a freshman legislator, said that the president could cope with a full stop on U.S. borrowing by using incoming tax revenue to pay for the services he thinks are essential — soldiers, Medicare and Social Security, and interest on existing debt.

That approach, outside experts have said, might mean the government wouldn’t be able to afford the FBI, veterans’ benefits or other federal services.

That’s all right with Crawford.

“That wouldn’t work for just a few days. That would work for a few years,” said Crawford, who added that he would agree to raising the debt limit only if such a bill included major changes in federal budget priorities. Budget deficits, he said, require “that we take some painful measures now. I’d rather swallow that bitter pill today.”

As the Aug. 2 deadline looms, the debate over how to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis is being complicated by legislators such as Crawford who think the crisis is not as bad as it’s made out to be.

On Thursday, several House Republicans said they didn’t believe predictions that economic calamity would result from a missed deadline. That opinion — held despite a stream of warnings from both parties’ leaders — could make it difficult for the House to pass a debt-ceiling deal.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), another freshman, said that a much bigger fear was that raising the debt ceiling would enable Washington to spend itself into paralyzing debt in a few years.

“A debt-ceiling problem, as large as it is, is not anywhere near as a big or as bad as” that, Brooks said. If Aug. 2 arrives without a deal, Brooks said, the federal government could continue paying creditors. He said that a show of tough fiscal self-discipline could actually improve creditors’ confidence.

“There should be no default on August 2,” Brooks said. “In fact, our credit rating should be improved by not raising the debt ceiling.”

That stands in contrast to a warning from Moody’s. The rating agency said Wednesday that it might downgrade the U.S. government’s top-notch credit rating, “given the rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis, leading to a default.”

These views also contrast with the worries of others in the Republican caucus. They have said that the GOP should use the deadline to press President Obama for the best deal possible.

But there should still be a deal.

“Missing August 2nd could spook the market,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday. “And you could have a real catastrophe. Nobody wants that to happen.”

Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) said he has urged other legislators to think of the broader consequences for the economy. “We were elected, I think, to make sure that stuff like August 3rd doesn’t happen,” he said Thursday.

But legislators such as Brooks and Crawford have caused this year’s debt debate to veer off Washington’s well-worn script.

Traditionally, the president’s part in this play is to ask for the ceiling to be increased. Congress’s role is to act outraged, extract concessions and give in — the consequences of default were too frightening to actually say no.

But the whole thing depends on fright. This year, for some legislators, there is none.

“There’s more willingness to drive off the cliff,” or at least to contemplate the idea, said freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).

The debt ceiling is, in essence, the limit on the national credit card. The current limit is $14.3 trillion, and the White House says it will hit that cap and have to stop borrowing Aug. 2.

Obama administration officials say that, after that date, they would be forced to choose between paying for government services and servicing foreign debt. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to underline how bad this would be: If investors lost trust in Treasury bonds, it could “throw the financial system potentially into chaos.”

But some Republicans, including several of the 87 House freshmen, say they don’t believe such warnings, noting that officials have shifted the date of default before.

Also, they’ve heard exactly the opposite from back home.

“Right now, it’s very strong: ‘Hold the line,’ ” said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). He estimated that 65 to 70 percent of constituent e-mails and calls were in favor of rejecting a debt-ceiling increase without major concessions from Obama. Walberg says his staff explains that economic consequences could be bad.

Do the callers stand by their demand? “Most of them do,” Walberg said.

Crawford, the freshman from Arkansas, was among 63 legislators who sent a letter to Obama on Thursday that imagined Aug. 3 arriving without a deal. In the letter, the legislators urged Obama to promise he would pay interest on existing debt, military salaries, and Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Crawford also said he’d been urged by constituents not to give in to pressure to raise the debt ceiling. He was asked: Have you explained to them what’s been predicted to happen?

“I think that’s probably an arrogant attitude to take, that I know more than they do,” Crawford said. “I’m trying to represent my district in Washington, and not Washington in my district.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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