The last time the federal government approached its statutory debt limit, Republicans in the House of Representatives fought tooth and nail to attach tough conditions to any increase. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shepherded a “clean” debt limit increase through that barely raised an eyebrow.
This increase didn’t even set a dollar amount. It simply suspended the debt limit until next March. I can almost hear the conversation: “So, where should we set the new debt limit?” “Ah, you know, whatever!”
One clue as to why House Republicans went along with Boehner’s clean debt limit increase is the vote total. The bill was backed by 193 Democrats and only 28 Republicans. You could say that Democratic lawmakers rescued their Republican counterparts from having to take responsibility for increasing the debt limit.
So does this mean that the GOP “fever” has broken? President Barack Obama, during a June, 2012 campaign appearance, famously told reporters that if he won re-election, “the fever may break” among Republicans. That after steadily refusing to cooperate with him on efforts to expand government’s size and influence in his first term, the president suggested, his re-election might lead Republicans to see the wisdom of moving to the center if not the left.
Obama seemed convinced that his domestic agenda was just a matter of common sense. Opposition to it, he seemed to suggest, was evidence of a fevered mind.
Republicans didn’t see things quite the same way. Throughout 2013, Republicans, if anything, stepped up their opposition to the president’s agenda — in particular to his signature domestic policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans kept trying to outflank each other, to demonstrate who could be most vociferously opposed to the president’s agenda.
The true test of conservatism became tactical. Unless you did everything you possibly could, for example, to defund Obamacare, you weren’t a true believer. Plenty of Republicans rejected this logic. But plenty of Republicans were also wary of getting outflanked on their right, or of holding their noses and voting for something they found distasteful in the extreme — like authorizing a big increase in the federal debt.
This, roughly speaking, is what led to the government shutdown, and last year’s epic fight over increasing the debt limit.
Something has changed since the shutdown, however. The fever Obama had in mind hasn’t broken. To the contrary, the problems plaguing the implementation of Obamacare, and the growing evidence that the law is unworkable, more expensive than advertised, and likely to fall short of its goals, have emboldened the president’s conservative critics.
But you’ll notice that a growing number of Republicans are offering their own policy ideas. Republican Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently released a health reform proposal, the Patient CARE Act that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a more decentralized, market-oriented system. This would cover roughly as many people as Obamacare, according to an analysis from the Center for Health and Economy, a new policy organization started by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former economic adviser to President George W. Bush.
In the wake of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, signed by President George W. Bush, and the fiscal stimulus, signed by Obama, grass-roots conservatives were outraged by yawning deficits and what they say is reckless spending by Democrats and establishment Republicans alike. The right became fixated on price tags. A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there — the federal government seemed out of control, and there was a desire to rein it in.
The Tea Party movement was, in this first phase, all about price tags. That is why the debt limit took on such resonance. It is also why Republicans saw the 2011 sequestration — a fancy way of saying arbitrary spending caps — as an opportunity. The first priority was to check the growth of the federal Leviathan.
Conservatives still care about spending. Yet there is a new conviction that it’s not enough to just contain spending.
Republicans are also trying to address pressing problems that threaten the fabric of a free society, like the lack of upward mobility from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. It used to be enough to be an anti-spending warrior. Now you’re expected to find ways to reduce spending while also making American society stronger.
The Burr-Coburn-Hatch bill is an intriguing sign of what’s to come. The senators’ goal is to spend substantially less than Obamacare, while accomplishing more in terms of expanding coverage and promoting innovation.
There is no guarantee that the bill will succeed. But the idea behind it has the potential to unite Tea Party conservatives, who think in terms of price tags, with other reform-minded conservatives who believe that government needs to be smarter as well as smaller.
The clean debt limit increase doesn’t mean that the GOP has embraced the growth of government. Conservatives haven’t signed on to Obama’s domestic agenda. Rather, GOP lawmakers are starting to look ahead, to when they regain the power to set the country’s direction.
They’re realizing they will have to do more than just cut spending. They will have to reform, repeal, and replace government programs that have failed too many Americans for too long.
PHOTO (TOP): Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) (L) and Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) walk to a Republican caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, January 7, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT 1): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) answers a question during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaking at the Conservative Political Action conference in Washington, February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst