A Debt Ceiling Showdown Between Republicans Comes Into Focus

GOP leaders want to avoid it. But the base might not let them.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

At a certain point during the middle of the summer, Republican operatives began worrying that the party was flirting dangerously with self-immolation, though not for the reasons many suspected.

Yes, Donald Trump launched a presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants illegally crossing the border “rapists.” And yes, another Republican presidential candidate accused President Barack Obama of shepherding another Holocaust with his Iran nuclear deal. But those were viewed as rhetorical flourishes from the campaign trail – potentially damaging but not necessarily self-destructive.

More worrisome was what was taking place on the Senate floor.

Toward the end of July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) allowed for a vote on an amendment reauthorizing the Export Import bank as part of consideration on highway funding legislation. Outside the chamber, conservatives— who deem the bank a conduit for corporate welfare — were furious. Inside, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called the Kentuckian a liar for supposedly breaking a promise not to revive the bank’s charter.

The bank’s charter ended up dying anyway once the House refused to act on the Senate’s bill. But the Cruz jab, unusually personal, was the strongest signal to date about brewing conservative frustration with congressional leadership. Days later, a top Republican fundraiser told The Huffington Post that he was having trouble recruiting donors because of discontent with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and McConnell. A conservative publication accused the Senate leader of having the yips.

With Congress on recess these past few weeks, that flare-up has been largely forgotten, eclipsed by more theatrics from Trump. It likely won't be long, however, until the tensions resurface. Lawmakers must pass a government funding bill by the end of September. And already, there are signs it won’t go smoothly, with conservatives demanding a defunding of Planned Parenthood during that process.

That could potentially spark another shutdown, like the one triggered by a push to defund Obamacare in 2013. But the bigger blow up may come weeks later.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the Treasury Department will run out of money sometime between mid-November and early December. Administration officials think this is a bullish time frame, through the end date is hard to pin down because of the extraordinary measures being used to fund the government.

Regardless, the deadline is nearing. And the mixture of an ongoing presidential campaign – which encourages lawmakers to play to their base – and the itching for more spending cuts from conservative groups suggests it won't pass without drama.

“Leadership constantly refers to the need to rein in mandatory spending,” said Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action for America. “If they do not use the debt limit as an opportunity to enact those policies – policies that are embedded in their bicameral budget – then they have no credibility on the issue. They should use the debt limit to drive down spending, both in the near term and long term, by demanding real entitlement reform such as Medicaid block grant and Medicare premium support.”

The Obama administration's posture is that they simply won’t negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, not after the calamity that transpired in 2011 when they did deal with Boehner to get the ceiling raised.

Republican leadership, likewise, seems content to not even hint at fighting this issue. McConnell’s office pointed The Huffington Post to a statement that the leader made before recess: “We are not doing government shutdowns and we are not threatening to default on the national debt." Boehner’s office was far more vague, with the official company line being: “The debt ceiling is one of many issues that members will address when they return.”

When they do return, however, Boehner (and McConnell) likely will be torn choosing between a deep desire to avoid drama but a primal inclination to not be tarred as “liars.” Leadership, the moneyed interests of the party, and most rank-and-file members realize a debt limit breach is economically catastrophic and a standoff is politically so. But believing this and acting on that impulse are two different things. And there is dwindling confidence that they will be able to do both.

Asked if he expected debt-ceiling fireworks, longtime GOP consultant Craig Shirley replied: “Without a doubt.”

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