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When ‘moderate’ means default

Many of the biggest Republican critics of the House GOP's shutdown strategy have adopted a surprising argument.
/ Source: hardball

Many of the biggest Republican critics of the House GOP's shutdown strategy have adopted a surprising argument.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is pursued by members of the media as he gets on an elevator on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, after leaving a Republican policy luncheon. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Threatening to shut down the government? Irresponsible. Threatening to crash the entire economy? Genius!

That’s the surprising argument many of the biggest Republican critics of the House GOP’s shutdown strategy have adopted.

And while many of them have been making that case for weeks, their split take is coming into greater focus as the October 17 deadline to raise the debt limit approaches, raising the question: who’s really a “moderate” when it comes to this fiscal mess?

Sen. Tom Coburn warned his party to steer clear of the CR fight last month since they’d have to “fold like hotcakes” once the shutdown’s consequences sunk in.

“You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot,” he said. “And we will not for sure shoot this hostage.”

The debt ceiling, though? Plug it full of lead.

“I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that you hear on every newscast that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt,” he told CBS. “We won’t.”

The Oklahoma senator’s claim flies in the face of mainstream economists, who are warning this week that even a brief lapse in Treasury payments would likely trigger a 2008-level financial crisis. Tony Fratto, a top Treasury official under President George W. Bush, has been telling Republicans for months that Coburn’s claim that “prioritizing” payments after October 17 will ward off default is a fantasy. Even Speaker John Boehner conceded on Sunday that breaching the debt ceiling would be a disaster and he’s the guy threatening to push the button. The idea of self-induced default is so grotesque that some House Republicans are uncomfortable even acknowledging the party plans to use the debt ceiling as leverage.

Coburn’s dueling approaches to the shutdown and the debt ceiling are hardly an anomaly within his caucus. Fellow Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, called an anti-Obamacare shutdown “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” but he’s been echoing Coburn’s debt limit denier claims himself this week.

The shutdown vs. debt ceiling divide also complicates the “moderate” label anti-shutdown Republicans have earned this month.

In some cases, it’s obvious the moderate reboot wouldn’t stick. Coburn has a 98% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and, despite an independent streak, is easily one of the most right-leaning members of the Senate. He first ran for Senate in 2004 pledging to stop the scourge of “rampant” lesbianism in the Oklahoma university system. No one is mistaking him for a moderate.

But even among some lawmakers with a more centrist reputation, the dream of using a debt ceiling confrontation to extract concessions from Democrats is alive and well.

Congressman Peter King, often tagged as a moderate leader this month for his fiery critique of the shutdown, has consistently made the argument that the CR fight was stupid because it distracted from a fight over default.

“Now we’re saying we should negotiate on the debt limit, which is what we should have been doing for the last month,” King said on Fox News Sunday. “That’s where the real negotiation is, not on this strategy that was doomed to failure.”

This “leave the shutdown, take the debt ceiling” argument was the plan Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor were pushing right up until the final weeks before the shutdown. And it still has plenty of devotees within the party.

Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, whose unconventional voting record often gets him tagged as moderate, came out for a clean CR on Tuesday. But he told MSNBC the same day that he was unsure how dangerous it was to breach the debt ceiling, which he hasn’t voted to raise since 1997 and is unlikely to support raising in 2013.

“I don’t know how a nation continues to borrow money from foreign governments to pay its bills unless you just stop spending,” he said.

Congressman Chris Collins of New York, one of the party’s few remaining Northeast moderates, used to support a clean CR before reversing his position after the shutdown began. On Tuesday he told MSNBC he would “absolutely not” support a clean debt ceiling increase either. In fact, he sounded downright fiery on the topic.

“If [Obama] doesn’t come in the room then he will own the consequences of not coming in the room, but he will not get a clean debt ceiling,” he said.

Even Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is widely despised by the tea party, advised against a shutdown fight for months by invoking the specter of default.

“Save your powder for the debt ceiling fight,” he warned way back in January.

He’s since softened his tone slightly, suggesting to MSNBC that he might support a short-term increase in the debt ceiling  — but only if it’s used to let the two sides negotiate new cuts.

Democrats need at least six Republicans in the Senate to pass a debt ceiling increase, which Majority Leader Harry Reid says he’ll attempt this week. So far there are at least a couple of them who sound amenable. But in searching for debt ceiling “moderates,” Democrats might be surprised to find that the Senate GOP’s low opinion of Ted Cruz doesn’t necessarily translate into support. When it comes to extorting the White House, many are only mad that Cruz  took the wrong hostage.