WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers are divided, it turns out, on what divided government means. That helps explain why reaching a debt-ceiling accord is so hard.
With Republicans controlling the House, and Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, many people feel it’s self-evident that neither party can get everything it wants. Both parties typically bargain as hard as they can, but any all-or-nothing stance is doomed in one house or the other.
Some House Republicans, however, see that as an outmoded and failed philosophy. They made rock-solid promises to their constituents, including never to raise taxes. Those promises cannot be broken, even if they stand in the way of a bipartisan deal that grants major concessions to the GOP and averts an economic crisis, they say.
Both parties have long had their take-no-prisoners wings. Yet Congress has a long tradition of bargaining, swapping and compromising to settle tough issues, even if inelegantly.
The fast and dramatic rise of the tea party movement is threatening that tradition. To many tea partyers who aided the Republican takeover of the House last fall, compromise itself is insidious, no matter how many times President Barack Obama calls it inevitable.
“We did not get you the gavel of the House of Representatives to play nice with the liberal Democrats,” said C.L. Bryant, a minister who has spoken at several tea party rallies.
A tea party blogger, Lee Bellinger, writes of “the disease of Republican compromise” that “infects Washington.” And William Temple, chairman of the Tea Party Founding Fathers, declared: “As the GOP primary season opens, if House freshmen and others elected by the tea party caved to Obama, we will find replacements for them.”
Lawmakers know these aren’t empty threats. A veteran GOP senator, Bob Bennett of Utah, was drummed out of his party last year, and out of office, by conservative activists who berated him for voting for a bipartisan bank-bailout bill backed by President George W. Bush and other Republican leaders.
To these activists, Washington-style compromise has become a feckless, lazy way of governing. They see conservatives and liberals compromising their ideals but still dodging tough decisions. Tea partyers particularly disdain Republican-led Congresses and administrations that paid lip service to spending cuts while deficits soared.
The movement’s influence is so great that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., alluded Monday to “the tea party-led House of Representatives.”
That’s an exaggeration. But dozens GOP freshmen in the House, and some in the Senate, reject the notion that compromise is a worthy or necessary strategy for governing when the two parties share power. They vow to stick to their positions, even if it means Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling and the government loses its borrowing powers next week.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, an experienced and savvy GOP lawmaker, is among the many who say economic chaos would ensue. He has urged his caucus, unsuccessfully so far, to embrace a “grand bargain” that would cut spending by up to $3 trillion over 10 years while raising revenues by up to $1 trillion, mainly by ending or limiting several tax breaks.
Obama reiterated Monday that Republicans cannot expect a Democratic-led Senate and administration to accept deep cuts in social programs without some increase in revenues. “This is a city where ‘compromise’ is becoming a dirty word,” he said.
Nonetheless, the White House later signaled possible support of a Senate plan that would protect Medicare and Social Security while not providing new revenues.
Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois is typical of GOP lawmakers who say they won’t budge. “There can’t be any hint of a tax increase,” he says.
Such Republicans reject accusations that they would wreck the economy. They say they are making a huge compromise just by considering raising the debt ceiling. They’re also skeptical about officials’ dire predictions of what will happen if the debt isn’t raised.
“Debt negotiations have been plagued for weeks by scare tactics and falsehoods about what would happen if the debt limit isn’t raised by Aug. 2,” says first-term Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.
Boehner is weighing how many of his 240 House Republicans will refuse to back a bipartisan debt-ceiling accord. He could pass a bill with ample help from Democrat. But a massive GOP defection might cost him the speakership.
“There are about 100 House Republicans that would not vote for a debt-ceiling increase if the Dead Sea Scrolls were attached,” said Jim Kessler, a founder of the centrist-Democratic group Third Way. “They got elected to shrink the size of government,” he said, and they don’t see compromise as the way to do it.