WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are unmistakably clear on what they won’t do to raise the debt limit and avert a threatened default, and equally emphatic about what they would do if they only had the power.
Soon, they’ll have to decide what they’ll settle for, a defining test of their willingness to compromise in a divided government where they share authority with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.
The Republican speaker of the House said this week, “I do think it’s responsible for us to look at what ‘Plan B’ would look like.” But some in John Boehner’s rank and file appear not yet willing to consider such a fallback alternative.
Boehner didn’t talk specifics, but he has been involved in compromise talks with Obama and White House officials for weeks, including Wednesday.
Politically, the more House Republicans are willing to give ground by trimming their demand for spending cuts or easing their opposition to higher government revenue, the more they may risk alienating the tea party activists and others who propelled them to power.
“I’m actually being accused of selling out back home,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a first-term South Carolinian and one of 234 Republicans who voted Tuesday for a debt limit increase tied to $6 trillion in spending cuts and progress toward a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
“Some folks don’t want to raise it under any circumstances,” Mulvaney said of the federal debt ceiling that could be breached on Aug. 2. “I tried to explain to them that this is the one chance to actually change Washington, so most folks will come around after we have that discussion.”
Indeed, some Republicans argue privately that willingness to compromise would also pressure Democrats to agree to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as part of a bargain to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over a decade.
Among the items Obama has entertained at White House negotiating sessions are gradually raising the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67 and slowing the annual increases in Social Security checks.
Democrats have assailed Republicans in past election campaigns for proposing far less.
“Eight-five percent is not a defeat,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was involved in numerous legislative struggles as a member of the House Republican leadership before his election to the Senate last fall.
“That would have been the Ronald Reagan view of this moment,” he said. “You take everything you can get, call it a victory and wake up the next morning and start working for the rest.”
The hope among House Republican leaders is that the rank and file will be open to compromise talk in a few days, after the legislation they passed Tuesday night has been rejected by the Senate.
But for now, the focus of many conservatives, particularly in the House where they hold power, remains an agenda designed for a one-party government.
“Let me be clear. This is the compromise. This is the best plan out there,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said late Tuesday night after the House had passed the bill that would trade an increase in the debt limit for $6 trillion in cuts and submission of a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification.
In fact, it’s nothing of the sort, based on the swift demise that awaits the bill in the Senate, a veto threat from Obama and the emergence of a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan from six senators who called for at least $1 trillion in “increased revenues.”
Instead, the measure that cleared the House is one of two bookends that Republicans have slid into place in the unfolding debate.
In late May, the leadership put legislation to a vote to raise the debt limit without any spending cuts. None of the rank and file supported it, and that was the point.
“I consider defeating an unconditional increase to be a success, because it sends a clear and critical message that the Congress has finally recognized we must immediately begin to rein in America’s affection for deficit spending,” Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said at the time.
Fast forward to the vote Tuesday night.
This time, all but 10 of the House’s 240 Republicans voted for the measure, showing they are not unalterably opposed to granting an increase in government borrowing.
All but three of the rambunctious, 87-member freshman class supported the bill.
Almost simultaneously, across the Capitol a surprising number of Senate Republicans were speaking favorably about a bipartisan deficit reduction plan by the so-called Gang of Six.
None of them said it contained any tax increases — Republicans haven’t openly supported any of those for more than 20 years, ever since President George H. W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge to secure a deficit reduction deal with Democrats.
But a summary of the plan says unambiguously that “tax reform must be estimated to provide $1 trillion in additional revenue” for the overall plan to meet its deficit reduction targets.
“This plan will be sure that there is revenue allocated to retiring our debt, but I am one of those conservatives who does not believe that tax increases are healthy for our economy either,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, one of the six authors of the plan.
Not everyone agreed.
“The Gang of Six, in true Washington fashion, talks about tax increases but offers hollow promises to cut spending in the future,” said Jordan.
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.