There are early signs of division within the Republican Party over how to approach the upcoming debate over raising the federal debt ceiling.
On Friday, a top Senate Republican signaled that members of his party should be prepared to play hardball and be willing to accept the kind of consequences in each previous fight they’ve threatened but managed to avoid.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) likewise insisted that Republicans hold the line, telling his members they must demand that every dollar they raise the debt limit be paired with commensurate spending cuts.
But other Republicans counseled caution, warning that pressure from the business community and the public to raise the $16.4 trillion federal borrowing limit renders untenable any threats not to do so and will weaken the GOP’s hand if their stance is perceived to be a bluff.
In an appearance Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) came out against the strategy of waging a showdown over the debt ceiling, calling the move a “dead loser” for the GOP.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are similarly hesitant to entertain the possibility of using a government shutdown or the debt ceiling as bargaining chips.
Rep. Billy Long, a Missouri Republican who first won election in the 2010 tea party wave, voted in favor of the 2011 debt-limit deal in part because “no one knows the ramifications of not passing a debt ceiling increase and this plan prevents us from finding out,” according to a statement he released at the time.
In an interview Friday, Long lamented that the only way Congress seems to do business is in eleventh-hour deals and he balked at the notion of shutting down the government.
“When you’re fighting two wars, it’s just not very practical,” he said of a potential shutdown.
Their remarks came on the heels of an op-ed by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) published Friday in the Houston Chronicle. In it, Cornyn argued that Republicans should be prepared to force a partial government shutdown to extract concessions from Democrats on significant spending cuts and entitlement reform.
“It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy and Spain,” Cornyn wrote. “President Obama needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately.”
Two other prominent GOP conservatives, Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have made similar arguments in recent days.
Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik explained that Toomey’s argument is the same as the one he made in early 2011 — that failing to raise the debt ceiling would not lead to a U.S. default in the short term and that the Treasury Department would rather have to prioritize payments made by the federal government, which could lead to a partial shutdown.
It wasn’t immediately clear from the comments made by Cornyn and Cruz whether they back that argument, which Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has rejected in the past.
Top GOP leaders thus far appear to be stopping short of invoking the specter of a federal shutdown: At a meeting with Republican lawmakers before the House adjourned on Friday, Boehner renewed his May 2011 pledge to seek a deal that includes spending cuts greater than the amount of the debt-ceiling increase. He touted the results of a GOP poll showing that 72 percent of Americans back such a proposal; other polls show the public is less enthusiastic when asked about specific programs to cut.
“The debate is already underway,” Boehner told House Republicans, according to a person in the room who was not authorized to speak publicly about the closed meeting.
There is exceedingly little time for Republican Party members to get on the same page, complicating the strategy for a party emerging from the chaos of “fiscal cliff,” the politics of Hurricane Sandy relief and an attempted rebellion against Boehner in his bid for a second term as House speaker.
The House is out until Jan. 14 and back in session for just three days each of the following two weeks. The Senate returns to Washington on Jan. 22. That means both chambers will be in session for only a few days before Feb. 4, when the limit deadline will be weeks away.
Democrats are wagering that Republicans will realize they cannot fiddle with debt limit again. That’s why President Obama has thus far just refused to negotiate over it. In remarks to the Business Roundtable last month, Obama pledged that “if Congress in any way suggests they’re going to tie up negotiations over debt-ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation, I will not play that game.”
Some congressional Democrats have been calling on him to make that promise even more explicit by pledging to invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and raise the federal debt limit without seeking the approval of Congress — a move backed by some liberal lawmakers and commentators during the previous debt-ceiling fight.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered her most direct support to date for such an approach at a news conference on Friday, telling reporters, “I would do it in a second, but I’m not the president of the United States.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney last month ruled out a potential move by Obama to bypass Congress, telling reporters that “this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling — period.”
White House officials have, however, shown a willingness to negotiate over a separate issue — the automatic spending cuts, or “sequester,” set to go into effect in early March.
With the clock running out on the debt-ceiling battle even before it begins, some Democrats on Friday seized on Gingrich’s remarks as they made their case against waging a battle over the debt ceiling. Erskine Bowles, chief of staff in the Clinton administration, who along with former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) co-chaired Obama’s 2010 debt commission, said he hoped “to high heaven that these guys don’t mess around with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”
“I think Speaker Gingrich is right, that if they do draw the line in the sand there, they will end up at the end of the day just folding,” Bowles said in an interview on CNBC. “Let’s start negotiating today.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.