Washington's latest guns-a-blazin' battle is over whether Congress will raise the debt limit. Five months ago, there was no disagreement: Congress would raise the debt ceiling. The journey from there to here is a case study of how conservatives decide what Washington debates—and, maybe, how Democrats have learned to play along.
In December, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. It would have been possible for them to raise the debt limit then, months before the Treasury Department says the federal government will hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit (the latest estimate is that the limit will be reached in May). But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a pass on the vote. "I want the Republicans to have some buy-in on the debt," he said. "They're going to have a majority in the House. I think they should have some kind of a buy-in on the debt."
Debt limit votes are, in political terms, somewhere between arsenic and strychnine. Democrats raised the limit in December 2009 by razor-thin margins in the House and Senate, and some of the people who'd voted to raise the limit lost their re-election bids. And in December, only the most wild, untamed Republicans were saying they'd oppose a debt ceiling increase. Republicans were saying, on the record, that they would bring a "clean" limit-raising bill to the floor.
This changed. Conservatives looked at the debt limit vote as one of three leverage opportunities—Democrats call them "hostage" opportunities— to force votes on the cuts they want. The first opportunity was the continuing resolution for the current year's spending, and GOP priorities like the defunding of the Affordable Care Act were left out of that. The second opportunity would come with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget. And yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called the debt limit one of "three bites at the apple."
This is why the Republican game of the moment is "Make Me a Deal for My Career-Threatening Debt Limit Vote." Most Republicans are playing; only a few have said there's nothing that could tempt them. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has written that he wants the debt limit vote "accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid." Other Republicans replace the and with an or. They'll take one of these things.
"I will ask the leadership to use the leverage to get real spending caps across the board," Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., told me today.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who's also voting against the continuing resolution, said he wouldn't vote for the increase unless it came with that much-desired cut to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. "I draw that line on the debt ceiling," he said. "Let's do something important."
Republicans are comfortable making this ask because nobody wants to cast this vote. Last week, Dick Armey's Tea Party group FreedomWorks released a poll on the debt ceiling, conducted across 14 swing states by Republican uber-pollster Frank Luntz. Nothing in there makes the vote look easy. Sixty-nine percent of all voters opposed raising the debt ceiling—conversation over. When asked whether they'd be OK with raising the limit if it was part of a deal that "includes very significant reductions in spending, reforms the main causes of growing debt, and implements tough restrictions on future spending," 54 percent of voters were still against it.
The poll went even further than that. Voters were asked whether they supported the Full Faith and Credit Act, a proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would sidestep the debt limit debate by forcing the government to pay its debts before it paid anything else. Democrats have derided this as the "pay China first" bill. When he was asked about it in February, Cantor blew it off: "I just don't understand how that mechanism is consistent with the notion we are a nation of laws."
In Luntz's poll, voters support the Toomey bill 55 percent to 17 percent.