For Republicans, the debt talks have shown three leaders calling three different plays, each trying to push and pull congressional Republicans in his direction. So far, all three have failed to find a plan that all of them can support.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared on June 19 that there wasn’t enough time to approve any of the plans to raise the government’s debt ceiling by the Aug. 2 deadline. He proposed a short-term hike to buy more time.
Two days later, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declared short-term deals a non-starter and said “there are no votes” for any grand bargain including higher tax revenue.
The next night, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) snuck into a secret meeting with President Obama to launch an effort for a “big deal” including hundreds of billions of dollars in new revenue.
McConnell, Boehner and Cantor say they are on the same side and never publicly criticize one another. But for the past five weeks, each has appeared to play to different audiences inside the Grand Old Party, with different motivations, according to aides and Republican lawmakers.
With an eye on history, Boehner has repeatedly sought to throw the “Hail Mary” pass by getting a massive deal that would create a path toward reining in runaway debt.
With an eye on the 2012 elections, McConnell privately has doubted Boehner could get Obama to agree to a large spending-reduction plan with no tax increases, so he worked on back-up plans.
With an eye on the 87 freshmen who propelled the GOP into the majority, Cantor served as the protector of the House conservative flank.
This chasm has emerged as the key stumbling block in ongoing efforts to cinch a final deal to avert a potential federal default. Only in the past 24 hours have they appeared to encircle the same plan: a revised version of McConnell’s idea for a temporary increase. Even that faces obstacles. On Saturday, Obama again pronounced his staunch opposition to such an idea.
Boehner’s golf game with Obama was the genesis of their push together to “go big,” as Obama would later call it. It jettisoned the negotiations led by Vice President Biden and Cantor to find more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for continued federal borrowing into 2013.
His friends and aides say that Boehner saw divided government as the moment through which he could reach for the biggest debt-reduction deal possible, something akin to Ronald Reagan and Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill forging a 1983 deal to extend the lifeline of Social Security. Risks were enormous because Obama and congressional Democrats always demanded large tax increases in exchange for the entitlement cuts sought by Boehner.
Boehner already had a rocky relationship with Cantor, and many staunch conservatives in the Republican Conference saw him as a back-room dealmaker instead of an ideological warrior.
As the talks unfolded Boehner presented himself as a “happy warrior” fighting the president and pushing for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment. This served to placate his conservative base and provided some support among junior lawmakers.
“I am absolutely prepared to support our speaker when that moment comes,” said freshmen Rep. Nan A.S. Hayworth (R-N.Y.).
Yet Boehner’s tough talk also stiffened many Republican spines against any compromise.
“I don’t think the speaker has to do anything,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a freshman from northwestern Pennsylvania. “We’ve passed legislation that allows the debt ceiling to rise. What is it about this plan that nobody understands?”
By Monday night, Boehner huddled for dinner with several close friends, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who earlier that day had unveiled the bipartisan “Gang of Six” plan calling for nearly $4 trillion in savings. Chambliss’s plan also included large revenue increases, but the senator said he knew that Boehner faced an uphill battle in winning support for anything similar.
“They’re trying to be principled,” Chambliss said last week of the House Republicans, “and that’s what is making it tough on John.”
Over the past few days, Boehner spoke with key bellwethers such as Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
On Wednesday night he hosted a group of freshmen at a pizza party on the first floor of the Capitol.
By Thursday, the White House pushed for a $1.2 trillion revenue package, a 50 percent increase over what Boehner and Cantor had discussed with Obama. No matter how they sold the deal, it would be seen as a massive tax hike.
McConnell’s ambition has always been to become majority leader, and despite the great GOP tidal wave in 2010, he still needs four seats to secure a Senate majority in 2012.
For more than four years, the two GOP leaders got along famously, talking “multiple times a week,” McConnell said recently. “We’ve had the most seamless relationship of party leaders, same party across the Capitol, in anybody’s memory.”
Yet that bond has been tested. McConnell has favored the short-term deal, partly because it would force vulnerable Senate Democrats to deal with the unpopular issue next year closer to the election. House Republicans have resisted that approach because they have dozens of endangered incumbents who would rather not cast multiple votes.
On July 12, a few days after Boehner first abandoned talks with Obama, McConnell made a move that turned him into a pariah among many House Republicans. He offered a plan to allow Obama to lift the debt ceiling three times through 2012, with Congress’s only ability to stop him being a vote of disapproval that would require a two-thirds majority.
McConnell saw it as a political masterstroke. The spending cuts that Biden and Cantor had drafted were not as big as advertised, he told advisers, and he had no inclination to push for the bigger deal. His approach at least provided political cover: Obama would lift the debt ceiling and only Democrats would provide the votes for it.
Boehner never publicly criticized the plan, but he knew the proposal had become toxic in the House. Some freshmen called it a “Pontius Pilate” plan, since there were no guaranteed spending cuts. Even Cantor distanced himself. “Our members are really insisting on trying to do something meaningful now,” he said.
By mid-July Cantor had become a prime target. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called him “childish” and suggested that he should not be allowed into bipartisan talks with Obama. They seized on his relationship troubles with Boehner and tried to drive a wedge between the two.
Cantor, 48, is 13 years Boehner’s junior and sees himself aligned with the self-proclaimed “Young Guns” McCarthy and Ryan. He went into the talks with the Biden group vowing to protect the interests of the very conservative Republican Conference.
After he and McCarthy privately opposed the early July tax provisions offered by Obama, the Boehner-versus-Cantor story dominated the Capitol. A few days later, Boehner felt compelled to drape his arm around Cantor at a news conference as a show of unity.
At that point, Boehner brought Cantor into talks with Obama. Despite concerns about discussion of increased revenue, Cantor played the role of loyal deputy. Still, at the end of this past week, they ended up at the same place: Obama wanted too much in taxes, and according to GOP aides, Cantor and the “Young Guns” advised Boehner that such an approach simply would not fly.
The result of this Republican division at the top has been confusion at the bottom. Many rank-and-file Republicans said they had little idea what kind of compromise would be proposed next. The last concrete proposal they had supported, called “cut, cap and balance,” failed Friday in the Senate, and the leadership team has not told their troops of another option.
“That’s the home run,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said. “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.”
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.