Why Republicans Should Postpone the Debt Limit Till After the 2014 Primaries

How you look at things.
Oct. 15 2013 10:25 AM

Primary Killers

If congressional Republicans are smart, they’ll postpone the next debt limit till after the 2014 primaries.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 24, 2013.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may face a primary challenge from the right.

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

Listen to William Saletan read this article by clicking on the player below:

House conservatives don’t think much of the Senate’s proposed deal to end the shutdown and the debt limit crisis. Before the plan was even spelled out, they attacked it. “We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told the New York Times. If the deal didn’t include major changes to Obamacare, Huelskamp warned, “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as [a] Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, urged his colleagues to stand firm against any plan to fund the government or raise the debt limit without getting budget concessions. “The base conservatives that are the majority of the Republican primary vote,” he insisted, “want us to hold the line.”

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Senate Conservatives Fund, a widely feared interest group that targets moderate Republicans, accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of "negotiating the Republican surrender” and working to “sabotage the effort to defund Obamacare.” The group has already run ads against McConnell in Kentucky, where he faces a primary challenge from his right.

Again and again, in state after state, the hard right has used this threat to cow and control congressional Republicans. It’s time for lawmakers to strike back. If you’re a Republican legislator or legislative aide, an important weapon is available to you right now: the scheduling of the next debt ceiling vote. Don’t let the scorched-earth right box you into another self-destructive standoff. Schedule the debt ceiling for after next year’s primaries.

According to Tuesday morning’s reports, the plan that’s been worked out by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would fund the government through Jan. 15. It would extend the nation’s borrowing capacity until a nominal deadline of Feb. 7, which apparently means Congress would have to vote sometime between February and April (depending on incoming revenue) to raise the debt ceiling again. That’s right before Republican voters begin to cast ballots in the 2014 primaries. Texas and Illinois vote in March. In May, other conservative and Republican states follow: Indiana, North Carolina, Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas, Idaho, and Kentucky, as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Nineteen more states vote in June. One votes in July. Fourteen follow in August, and the last four finish up in September.

Scheduling the next debt ceiling vote in front of these primaries is a surefire way to repeat the madness we just went through. You and your colleagues, Mr. Republican Congressman, will face even worse pressure to toe the Tea Party line. Seventy-four percent of Americans now say they “disapprove of the way the Republicans in Congress are handling negotiations over the federal budget.” That’s a 16-point net slide for Republicans in the last two weeks, compared to a 6-point decline for Democrats. Do you really want to endure this again?

Look at the fools who drove you into this bloodbath and are now trying to block your way out of it. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, says Senate Republicans “will never be able to take back the Senate” because they “pussyfoot around.” Huelskamp, Labrador, and the Senate’s right-wing preeners—Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), and Rand Paul (Kentucky)—won their seats in the last three years by taking out moderate Republicans in primaries. They use that threat to own you.

Take that weapon away from them. Schedule the debt ceiling vote after the primaries, when you’ll be free to do what’s best for you, your party, and your country. The sweet spot is September, after the summer recess. The four states that hold their primaries that month—Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts—are largely Democratic. The only election you’ll face is the one against the Democrats in November. The audience you’ll be competing for is the general public, not the Tea Party. Isn’t that a healthier way to debate the debt ceiling?