It's getting ugly on Capitol Hill, folks. This week, congressional Republicans have gone from holding the president and their leadership's feet to the fire to becoming a circular firing squad.
Conservatives were in full revolt against House Speaker John Boehner's two-step plan to raise the debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found his accompanying spending cuts wanting. Perhaps it was payback from the last crisis, when GOP congressmen were stampeded into voting for a deal that would avoid a government shutdown, only to learn that it cut just $352 million from the current year's deficit.
Bamboozled time and again by Democratic presidents and their own leadership, many rank-and-file conservatives just don't believe fiscal discipline that must be maintained by future Congresses will ever materialize. They are unwilling to raise either taxes or the federal debt limit in exchange for phantom spending cuts.
Staffers for the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) were caught aiding outside conservative activists who opposed the Boehner plan and wanted the GOP to stick to Cut, Cap and Balance. RSC aide Wesley Goodman fired off an email Tuesday saying "now is the time to kill the Boehner deal," requesting "statements coming up to the Hill every hour of the day in mounting opposition to the plan."
"Fire him, fire him!" GOP lawmakers chanted of Goodman and RSC executive director Paul Teller. Some lawmakers, including those listed as "Members to Target" in defeating the Boehner plan, are considering withholding dues or even pulling out of the RSC. Party elders like Sen. John McCain described the Tea Party freshmen as "foolish" in their demands.
Late Wednesday, there were signs that the speaker was quelling this conservative rebellion. Boehner revised the plan to include $22 billion in deficit reduction in the first year and to cut and cap spending by an amount that exceeds the debt ceiling increase by $17 billion, according to the updated CBO score circulated by the speaker's press office. "Get your ass in line," Boehner reportedly told wavering members.
They may be complying. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has at times seemed to be positioning himself to Boehner's right in the debt ceiling debate, pronounced himself "150 percent" in the speaker's corner. According to press reports, Cantor exhorted members to quit their "whining" and vote for the Boehner plan. "The debt limit vote sucks," Cantor is said to have admitted, but it was time to "call the president's bluff" by passing spending cuts and a short-term debt ceiling hike.
If the House Republican leadership is presenting a united front, conservatives inside and outside Congress are doing anything but. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) joined stalwarts like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) in opposing the deal. Rep. Allen West (R-FL) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) threw their support behind Boehner.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol declared that to vote against Boehner is to side with Obama. Talk radio is mostly sounding a skeptical note. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is apparently still negotiating with Vice President Joe Biden.
The debate is in many respects a replay of April's government shutdown fracas, with potentially greater consequences. Republican leaders want to avoid a crisis for which they believe they will be blamed politically. While controlling just one half of one third of the federal government, they do not want to share "co-ownership of a bad economy," in McConnell's phrase, with President Obama. Let's get some spending cuts, declare victory, and live to fight another day.
Yet their conservative critics, many of whom insist the deadline the president has imposed is overhyped at best, respond: The national debt now stands at $14.3 trillion. We are being asked to allow Washington to borrow even more. When does the day for fighting actually come?
The White House has done nothing but pour fuel on the fire. Press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday likened what will happen if Republicans fail to act to the movie Sophie's Choice, in which a mother had to choose which of her children to save in a Nazi death camp. Obama is still hinting he will veto a Boehner-like plan if it reaches his desk, but it is hard to imagine he will be willing to face those political consequences at this late date.
Meanwhile, conservatives seeking drastic cuts in federal spending sound like the Irish Americans this writer met in South Boston pubs years ago, downing their drinks while muttering a Gaelic phrase. The supposed English translation of their toast? "Our day will come."
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