For House Republicans, the fight over the debt ceiling isn't just about fiscal reform. The battle that spawned a government shutdown is also very much about preserving the GOP majority's relevance in future policy debates.
At issue isn't whether House Republicans should accept a bad deal to raise the federal borrowing limit and ensure the U.S. does not default on its $16.7 trillion debt. Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations.
That has only reaffirmed to House Republican leaders -- who wanted to avoid a government shutdown -- that they have no choice but to stand their ground on the debt ceiling. Surrounded by a hostile White House and Senate, and with few legislative avenues beyond borrowing and spending bills to impose their agenda, Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess.
“This president thinks he’s above having to sit down and negotiate with his adversaries under the normal conditions of government,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is close to GOP leadership. “With all due respect, spending and borrowing authority does not rest with the president of the United States, it rests with the Congress; that’s Constitution 101.”
The government is expected to hit its debt limit — and default on its financial obligations if it's not increased — around Oct. 17. Bolstered by Senate Democrats, the president early on staked out a position that he would not negotiate a debt ceiling increase, contending that raising the federal borrowing limit is not “a concession to me.”
Obama, along with Senate Democratic leaders, argue that the refusal to negotiate is necessary to break a pattern of governing by crisis and send a message to congressional Republicans that they cannot “threaten” to use fiscal deadlines to “extort” their policy priorities. But this approach, viewed by House Republicans as an attack on their constitutional legitimacy, has only caused them to dig their heels in further.
At stake is not whether the GOP can engineer a deal that achieves substantial fiscal reform and passes muster with conservatives, but whether the White House and the Senate have to deal with House Republicans on a range of issues that require their support. Having insisted for weeks that surrendering their legislative prerogative is not an option, folding now could cause an intra-party backlash for Republicans ahead of the 2014 midterm elections and destroy their credibility in all future negotiations.
“House Republicans have drawn a line in the sand and cannot back down from it or risk losing all credibility going into an election year,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican congressional leaders. “They can continue to offer different legislative proposals to get out of the shutdown and paint Obama as leading the part of ‘no.’”
Congressional Republicans were divided over whether to allow the government to shut down. Most opposed the strategy of attempting to defund Obamacare by attaching it to a budget bill needed to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30.
But the GOP is virtually united on the debt ceiling.
Philosophically, they view it as an opportunity to enact the fiscal reforms and spending cuts they believe are necessary to balance the nation's books and foster economic growth. Many believe this is what they were elected to do. Politically, it speaks to House Republicans' desire to reclaim legislative branch authority from the executive branch -- an issue that drives many Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers.
Unlike negotiations over gun control or immigration reform, in which Republicans can influence policy simply by refusing to consider legislation, raising the debt ceiling -- which must happen -- requires Republicans to support it.
It's not that Republican lawmakers face political pressure from voters back home to increase the government's borrowing authority. Most GOP voters oppose giving Obama what they see as a blank check. But Republicans see the debt ceiling vote as part of an institutional fight over constitutional authority, which is harder for them to walk away from than a policy priority that can always be brought up again later.
“A large part of what the House GOP has been trying to do since the 2010 election is to reassert the power of the legislative branch, not simply imposing their will as a GOP majority,” a former House GOP leadership aide said.