On Wednesday, House leaders confirmed that they will not vote to increase the nation’s debt ceiling without an amendment to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act by one year, a measure that faces certain defeat in the Senate and a veto threat from President Obama. The bill will also include tax reform instructions and “language to urge the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.” A separate piece of must-pass legislation aimed at keeping the government functioning until Dec. 15, known as a continuing resolution, will also cut funding for the new health care law, leadership announced.
“We have to stay on the right side of public opinion,” House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told his colleagues. “Shutting down the government puts us on the wrong side. The fight is on the debt limit.”
But while the House GOP is now united in its effort to use both bills as vehicles to undermine Obamacare just days before uninsured Americans begin enrolling in its state-based health care exchanges, the very same Republicans who are now holding the debt ceiling hostage to ideological policy goals, had previously cast this kind of political brinkmanship as both childish and irresponsible.
In 2011, for instance, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and other top Republicans gave presentations to freshman lawmakers elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, “explaining to the members how Congress has raised the debt ceiling in the past” — Republicans had previously voted to increase the debt ceiling 19 times during the presidency of George W. Bush, raising the nation’s limit by nearly $4 trillion — and showing them “that both the conservative Republican Study Committee’s budget and the House Republican budget call for a hike in the debt ceiling.”
Leadership reminded its caucus that a vote to raise the debt ceiling would pay for the spending Congress has already enacted and is not a determination of how much much the nation should spend. Shortly after the 2010 election, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hinted that Republicans would “deal with [the debt ceiling] as adults.” “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part,” he said. Ryan agreed, telling reporters at the National Press Club in January of 2011 that “you can’t not raise the debt ceiling. Default is the unworkable solution.”
Prominent conservative Karl Rove warned the GOP that failing to raise the borrowing limit “would be catastrophic” and even conservatives like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) urged the House to find a way to secure their desired spending cuts “without jeopardizing the full faith and credit of our country.”
But ultimately, after the 2011 standoff only narrowly avoided default and led to the first ever downgrade of America’s credit rating, the very same Republicans who had initially sought to tame Tea Party conservatives in their zeal for spending cuts, have now seemingly washed their hands of any effort to find a sensible compromise on the debt ceiling. Instead, they fully embraced their strategy of using the debt ceiling as leverage to accomplish narrow ideological goals.
Ironically, this latest budget fight comes after Congress has already enacted $2.4 trillion worth of austerity measures in the past two years, nearly all of it in the form of spending cuts, and the Treasury Department confirmed last week that the deficit has fallen to the lowest level since 2008.