SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On his 104th day in office, Rep. David Schweikert stepped before about 60 of his constituents here and, like an economics professor, flipped through one scary chart after another to hammer home his point: America faces a tidal wave of debt.
Then he asked for a show of hands: If you were a freshman congressman like him, would you vote to raise the government’s debt limit?
Two hands went in the air.
He got the same reaction at another town hall meeting, and he expects it again at a tea party forum later this week.
Schweikert, a Republican, isn’t sure if he’d raise his hand, either.
This is his dilemma: He knows Congress has little choice but to raise the amount of money the government can borrow to prevent the economic havoc sure to follow if the United States defaults on its loans. He also knows doing so is deeply unpopular — not only among his conservative base, but among some moderates and liberals, too.
“I desperately want to vote ‘no,’ ” Schweikert said at the town hall. “I also desperately don’t want [the economy] to crash.”
If Schweikert finds himself in a difficult political spot, it’s partly of his own making. He and the scores of other Republicans who were elected last fall ran on an unyielding pledge to cut spending, reduce the nation’s debt and generally get the country’s finances in order, a mission that has been fully embraced by party leaders in Washington.
Now, a few months after taking office, they are caught between their convictions, their constituents and their duties as congressmen.
If they vote to raise the debt limit, some will see them as sellouts, corrupted by the same Washington they promised to fix. If they don’t, they could endanger the nation’s economy.
Political strategists have begun comparing the debt ceiling to TARP, the $700 billion bank bailout that was seen as must-pass legislation when it cleared Congress at the height of the recession in 2008 but was so unpopular that it ended up costing some lawmakers their careers.
Many freshmen, including Schweikert, are searching for a middle ground, saying they would reluctantly raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit if spending caps or other long-term measures to bring down the deficit are part of the deal.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has privately told administration officials and Wall Street executives that he believes raising the debt limit is the responsible thing to do. Still, he has signaled that he plans to leverage the reluctance of fellow Republicans to win longer-term spending concessions from Democrats.
When told of the pros and cons of raising the debt limit, 62 percent of Americans surveyed in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll this month said they did not support raising the debt limit. Thirty-two percent supported raising it.
That this would be a tough sell to the public was clear even before Schweikert entered the auditorium of the Granite Reef Senior Center for his town hall on Monday. As people settled in their seats, Dennis Dugan approached the congressman’s chief of staff and held up a picture of a penguin that a 6-year-old family friend drew.
“This is what it’s all about,” Dugan, 64, a retired accountant, told the aide. “What we’re doing right now is eating our young alive. We need to control the money.”
Dugan is against raising the debt limit.
So is Tina Hartwig.
“We have too much debt already, and pretty soon foreign countries will be owning us,” said Hartwig, 65, a retired businesswoman.
Add to the chorus Emilia McCarthy.
“We have to get a handle on things,” said McCarthy, 72, a self-identified tea partyer and real estate agent who retired a few years ago when the market started to collapse. “It’s just like if you max out your credit card and you call to see if you can get your limit raised even though you can’t pay your bill.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The congressman explained that if the government defaults on its loans — which the Treasury Department expects to happen by July 8 unless the debt limit is raised — interest rates would spike, the country’s good credit would be damaged, and a row of other dominoes would fall, culminating in a debt crisis.
“I believe we get punished from both directions,” Schweikert said at the meeting. “If we all walk in and are good little soldiers and vote ‘yes,’ they’re going to punish us because we raised the debt ceiling — we didn’t scare the markets today, but you’re not taking your debt seriously. If we don’t do it, interest rates start to explode.”
Schweikert talked about the news that broke a couple of hours earlier: The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s effectively put the United States on credit watch, saying the government could lose its coveted AAA rating if it does not bring spending in line with revenue.
Pointing to the news, Schweikert said he would not vote to raise the debt limit unless there were “substantial game-changers” by way of spending caps and budgetary reforms that would prove U.S. sovereign debt would be good decades from now.
In his 2010 race against the incumbent, Harry Mitchell (D), Schweikert never took a position on the debt limit, he said. But Schweikert campaigned in this relatively well-educated and wealthy suburban swing district as a fiscal conservative and attacked his opponent for backing costly legislation, including the $787 billion stimulus.
At the town hall, Schweikert cast the debt situation in apocalyptic terms. “This is about the survival of your republic right now,” he said.
That prompted one man to interrupt him: “Don’t just give us this lip service. Do something.”
Schweikert said he’s been trying. He voted for every spending cut that came to the floor one week in February, making him one of only 47 House Republicans with a 100 percent record on a series of hundreds of spending amendments, according to an analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Over lunch at his favorite vegan Indian buffet here, Schweikert repeatedly referred to himself as “one of the most conservative freshmen” — something he believes gives him a sort of street cred with tea party activists when talking about raising the debt ceiling.
Schweikert, 49, seems about as wonky as any duly elected fiscal wonk can get. The former Maricopa County treasurer carries a 12c financial calculator and actually knows how to use it. He sits on the Financial Services Committee and said he spends five hours a day studying the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage businesses for the subcommittee he helps lead.
And he met the woman he would marry when she picked him up after spotting him reading an accounting modeling textbook. He was at a Starbucks; she, walking by, did a double take and said she had used the same book in graduate school.
“My branding is, umm . . . I’m the math-budget guy. I’m a little geeky,” Schweikert said in an interview after the town hall.
It’s this appreciation of fiscal minutiae that Schweikert is trying to spread among his constituents. He criticizes the public for its lack of factual information about the debt. “It’s sort of government by folklore,” he said.
“You get in front of these rooms, and they’re like, ‘Don’t vote for the debt ceiling!’ ”
Schweikert hears that but isn’t so sure he has that luxury.
“Isn’t that my job?” the congressman said in the interview. “Instead of just giving pabulum — that’s easy — the willingness to say ‘Here’s what I understand the truth to be’?”