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The Nation

A Rambunctious Right Wing, A Silent President, and the Debt Ceiling Deal

George Zornick

House Speaker John Boehner, center, and members of the Republican conference speak with reporters following a meeting with President Obama at the White House on Wednesday. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

This morning, every Republican in the House of Representatives was invited to the White House to talk with the president about raising the federal debt limit, which each one of them opposed in a rancorous vote last night.

The talks are part of an increasingly volatile situation in Washington—the federal government has already reached the statutory debt limit, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he can only allow federal spending until August 2 through a variety of accounting tricks.

After Aug. 2, if the debt ceiling is not raised, the United States would have to stop paying everything from Social Security and Medicare benefits to military salaries. Worse, bond market reaction to an official U.S. default on debt could create “a self-inflicted financial crisis potentially more severe than the one from which we are now recovering,” according to the Treasury Department.

In exchange for votes to raise the debt limit, leading Republicans want trillions of dollars in spending cuts, as House Speaker John Boehner is pushing, along with cuts to Medicare and possibly other social welfare programs, as advocated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And they don’t want to fix the federal debt with even one cent of additional tax revenue.

Following today’s meeting, House Speaker John Boehner essentially said it wasn’t really a dialogue, but rather a chance for Republicans to once again dictate their demands. “This was an opportunity for our members to communicate directly to the president about our ideas about how to get the economy going again…and how to solve the debt problem facing our country.”

It wouldn't be surprising if today's discussion was as one-sided as Boehner claims. The White House has been disturbingly silent on the entire debt ceiling issue--as Walter Shapiro noted, President Obama has never even said the words “debt ceiling” since taking office, much less pushed back against Republican grandstanding. Last night's vote was on a measure to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached, and its failure guaranteed President Obama and Democrats will now have to agree to at least some Republican demands.

Following the White House meeting today, McCarthy suggested to reporters that Obama agreed that spending cuts and “entitlement reform” will be addressed in the debt ceiling deal—something bound to anger the president’s liberal supporters. If true, why is Obama already agreeing to these demands without making any of his own?

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has a troubling theory.


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"The failure of President Obama to play any role in shaping this debate is so massive that it must be deliberate. After all, his administration is not run by morons. They have all the cards, especially after NY-26, and are playing none of them,” Baker said. “I think it’s wrong to assume that Obama is pushing to defend programs like Social Security and Medicare here. All the evidence points in the other direction.”

But before everyone can worry about what a potential debt ceiling deal might look like, Boehner must first worry about selling that deal to rabble-rousing Tea Partiers in his caucus. Most of them are new to Washington, and many are new to politics all together. They are also deeply suspicious of having been hoodwinked in the government shutdown debate into accepting “illusory” spending cuts that must be maintained by future Congresses.

Now, when it comes to the debt ceiling, they’re not playing around. “The CR was a great practice round,” said freshman Rep. James Lankford, who was running a Christian youth camp at this time last year and believes the federal debt must be eliminated because “Proverbs is pretty clear, a righteous man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.”

Lankford wants the enactment of a long-term balanced amendment in order to raise the debt ceiling, a radical proposal popular with many Tea Party members—many of whom also have their own demands. For example, Rep. Allen West of Florida wants the corporate tax rate halved before he votes to increase the debt limit, while Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia needs the Departments of Energy and Education eliminated before he agrees to raise the debt limit.

Needless to say, these ultra-conservative members are going to need a lot of coaxing to go along with any debt ceiling deal that doesn’t include their extreme proposals. In an ominous sign, at least one freshman Republican—Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana—didn’t even bother attending the White House summit today, instead releasing a statement saying “I don’t intend to spend my morning being lectured to by a President whose failed policies have put our children and grandchildren in a huge burden of debt.”

Republican leadership is working diligently to corral the rebellious Tea Partiers. Politico reported last week that Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has been meeting with such members for weeks, gently informing them that raising the debt ceiling is necessary, that even budgets from the extremely conservative Republican Study Committee would require raising the debt limit, and that contrary to what many members—and Tim Pawlenty—have said, the country can’t safely enter default after Aug. 2 just to prove a point.

McCarthy’s presentation includes a lot of color-coded charts and graphs, according to the Politico reporters who saw it, and “is stunningly simple and illustrates just how unfamiliar House Republicans are with governing.”

Damaging spending cuts and reduced social welfare programs seem certain at this point. But that’s not even the worst that could happen—there might not even be a deal to begin with.

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