Republicans in fighting mood over debt ceiling

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The recent fiscal-cliff showdown has left Republicans smarting, putting much of their legislative gamesmanship over the spending and taxes standoff at odds with the public's desire for compromise. A newly-released Pew poll suggests that the messy negotiations benefited the White House: Just 19 percent gave GOP leaders good marks on their handling of the negotiations, while 48 percent did the same for President Obama. No one particularly cared for the final deal, with only 38 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving.

And while House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell live to fight another day, utilizing their next best piece of legislative leverage -- the debt ceiling -- may also come with a political price tag.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called using the debt ceiling as leverage a "dead loser," and said that House Republicans need to find "a totally new strategy."

But Republican strategists believe that even another déjà vu showdown over sequestration and the debt ceiling won’t carry the same costs, with party leaders confident that in this next round, the public is more likely to be on their side than they were during the fiscal-cliff negotiations. They argue that Democrats got their tax hikes on the wealthy -- something Obama campaigned on, and something Republicans eventually caved on -- while no spending cuts were enacted.

“A debate driven by tax rates for the wealthy was a much easier debate for [Obama] than a debate about debt limits and deficits and spending,” says Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist and former Mitt Romney campaign adviser.

House Republican leadership has cited to its caucus a December poll commissioned by the GOP firm the Winston Group showing the public is largely against raising the debt ceiling, with 60 percent opposed and just 30 percent in favor.  

“The Republicans don’t have to change their stripes to succeed. They need to leverage public opinion about spending and the deficits,” says veteran Republican strategist and former Boehner aide Terry Holt. “The American people are there -- they expect cuts. They anticipate some level of austerity-reform.”

The ways things play out in Washington will also have just as much to do with the political implications faced by individual lawmakers as opposed to those faced by the party as a whole.

“At the end of the day, the only poll that matters is the one in people’s districts. I’m focused on the people in my district," Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., said. "National polls include people in Nancy Pelosi’s district, Henry Waxman’s district.... I don’t work for them, and I’m not real worried about the national polls.”

For lawmakers such as Griffin, a debt-ceiling debate is one in a series of opportunities to push a broad conversation about the national debt and deficit reduction. "If we communicate effectively, I think we will be able to demonstrate to the American people that the president’s talk about a balanced approach was nonsense," Griffin said.

Moving forward, a number of Republicans have signaled a strong stance on the debt ceiling. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has said that when it comes to the upcoming debt-ceiling fight, "I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise, I think what Washington needs is more common sense and more principle." Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has said that his party needs "to be willing to tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown."

“The reason why conservative Republicans have been pretty firm in their resolve is they’ve seen the evolution of the issue,” Holt says. In the 1990s, for instance, not many Americans cared about debt as a broad topic, Holt says. Now, the nation’s debt is much higher, and it was a top campaign issue.

Even so, it appears that Republican leadership is providing some wiggle room on the debt ceiling and trying to incorporate the issue into a broader conversation about debt reduction, spending cuts, and reform -- which may play better politically. Boehner said in recent Wall Street Journal interview that the debt ceiling is “one point of leverage” but it’s “not the ultimate leverage.”

“As a party, we have to defend our core fiscal-conservative principles and I think the party as a whole recognizes that no one event is going to result in the reformation for the Republican Party, but it’s part of a process,” Madden says. “But we’ll keep aligning ourselves as the stewards of good fiscal policy.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.