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Olden times? The Tea Party isn’t what it used to be

Republicans are sounding different these days. Whatever happened to the Tea Party's obsession with the debt ceiling?
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Republicans are sounding different these days. Whatever happened to the Tea Party's obsession with the debt ceiling?

Back in 2011, House Republicans were willing to go to the brink in a fight with Barack Obama over raising the debt ceiling.

This time around, the conference might look even more extreme — since they let the government shut down — but Republicans in recent days have walked back talk of using the debt limit as a bargaining chip with Democrats.

So as John Boehner prepares to meet with his conference Friday morning to strategize a debt limit plan, the question is which version of the party will emerge: one driven by the tea party — willing to risk default to get everything they might want — or the new one that is reluctant to risk the full faith and credit of the United States, especially as Obama has toughened up in this fight.

“I would hope that no one looks at the debt ceiling as a leverage point. It is a point of decision. But it’s not a ‘hey, I’ll throw our credit history into the tank if you don’t do this,’” said Rep. James Lankford, a member of the House GOP leadership team. “I don’t think there’s energy in the Republican conference to have any kind of default on the debt ceiling,” he added.

Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana pushed back when MSNBC asked him to explain how the the threat of a debt ceiling crash gave Republicans more leverage.

“Nobody wants to default,” he said. “We’re not using the debt limit per se as leverage, we’re using the other elements…sequestration, the fact we’re in a shutdown now. That’s pressure.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Rep. Mike Simpson told USA Today on Thursday when asked whether the country was going to default.

Under this version, Republicans are suggesting that the debt ceiling is simply a judicious moment for our leaders to “have a conversation about how do stop having these,” as Lankford put it. He even suggested he’d be willing to support a clean debt-ceiling hike in during such talks: ”If we’re in negotiations at that time to actually be able to resolve this? Yes.” he said.

This reluctance among members to tie the same fiery talk they’ve used in the shutdown fight to the debt limit dovetails with a New York Times report that Boehner has privately told colleagues default is not an option — even if he has to turn to Democrats to prevent it.

The change may reflect differences between now and the 2011 debt ceiling fight, when Republicans managed to negotiate a major deficit reduction deal.  As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, it was Republicans had just won big in the last election then and Obama who had the most to lose in the next one. On the policy end, Obama was already talking to Republican leaders about a long term deficit reduction package (remember Simpson-Bowles?), meaning that even if talks finished in a crisis, there was a legitimate starting point for discussion.

This time around, Obama is the won coming off an electoral win and he isn’t on the ballot in 2016. He also has little to gain from opening talks with Republicans, who have already made clear they won’t give any major concessions on things like revenues or infrastructure spending for the same reasons we’re now in a shutdown: the tea party wouldn’t like it. That makes the talk of the debt ceiling as leverage come off as extortion. RIght now, the only “middle ground” the GOP sees is how much of Obama’s health care law they get to undo.

There’s another difference, too. In 2011, the Tea Party-infused freshman class had spent millions of dollars on ads tarring Democrats for raising the debt ceiling in the past. Some were actively gunning for a default, which they likened to an instant balanced budget. There was a genuine fear that “debt limit deniers” might spark a crisis by refusing any debt ceiling increase.

Since then, Lankford, who was a freshman Congressman in 2011, says that things have shifted within the caucus.

“I think there’s been a lot of education. Obviously there’s a lot of new members that have been here. We have a tremendous number of folks that have been here less than three years—they’ve not walked through this before,” he said. “And I think if you ask some of the people before [who were pushing for a default]—I think it would interesting for you to ask those that made a comment like that to you two years ago, what they believe now.”

Whatever the reason, the shift in tone is striking. As his supporters note, Boehner’s position has always been that default would be devastating. But at the same time, he promised a “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling in August, declaring that “we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit.” That kind of talk — which implicitly threatens a debt ceiling breach –  could frighten creditors in a debt limit showdown.

Boehner’s office, for their part, is not telegraphing any shift in their position, but their remarks aren’t exactly ruling out the Times report either.

“Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we’re going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, told MSNBC. “That’s why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again.”

While the threat level may be slightly lowered, there’s still no obvious path to get Democrats and Republicans to an endgame in which the shutdown is over and the debt ceiling is raised. The same dynamic that got us here — the fear of conservative revolt — could force Boehner back toward a harder line on the debt limit. Given the White House’s ironclad opposition to any negotiations on the debt ceiling, it’s also not impossible to imagine Boehner passing a last-minute bill he expects Democrats to barely tolerate only to find he’s misread their resolve and it’s too late.