Tom Cole is the kind of Republican that President Obama will need to help raise the debt ceiling. The Oklahoma congressman is a conservative, but he’s also a pragmatist and a realist who urged Republicans early on to lock in income tax rates for almost all Americans, rather than risk the possibility of income taxes automatically rising for everyone. He was one of the 85 House Republicans who voted in favor of the "fiscal cliff" compromise on January 1 and one of only 49 Republicans who voted for the $50 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill on January 15.
But when it comes to raising the debt ceiling, Congressman Cole is adamant that he will not accede to President Obama's unequivocal demand to raise it without any spending cuts tied to it.
“I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that," Cole told me in a phone interview.
"We didn’t downgrade our credit [in 2011] because of the debt ceiling fight. We downgraded in my view because when we had the fight we didn’t cut enough," Cole said. "Just raising the debt ceiling with no compromise sends the wrong message—that we think we can willy-nilly go on forever."
"If there are not serious cuts, the Republican votes are not going to be there," Cole continued.
Votes for a debt ceiling hike certainly aren't going to come from the purists on the right. "We want to meet our obligations. We want to pay for the essential things in our government. But we also understand that if we don’t have an intervention, there’s going to be a crash,” Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio told me. “If we don’t deal with this problem now, it’s going to get a lot worse later.” Jordan, former head of the Republican Study Committee, says Republicans "haven't decided" on what spending cuts must be tied to a debt limit hike. But it's hard to imagine most conservative members of the conference agreeing to anything less than the "cut, cap, and balance" plan.
So the key to passing a debt ceiling hike is the pragmatists like Tom Cole. The only problem is that the pragmatists need some spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling, and Obama is refusing to give them anything--or even negotiate about giving them anything.
“To me, the logical place to start are some of the ideas that the president himself has put on the table or indicated he’s favorable toward. Chained CPI is one of them,” Cole said, referring to an adjustment to Social Security benefits. “Gradual raising of the age on Medicare eligibility is something that ought to reappear. … I personally think one of the places Republicans are prepared to be pretty tough is means testing for higher income individuals, at least some sort of sliding scale similar to what we have Medicare Part D. On the discretionary front, I would expect some of the sequester to actually stay." Obama reportedly put changes to Social Security and Medicare on the table in the summer of 2011 "grand bargain" negotiations with John Boehner, when the president considered moving to the center. But he just won reelection after running to the left, and there's little reason to think he's going to support these cuts again.
Every budget showdown over the past two years--the continuing resolution, the debt limit fight of 2011, the "fiscal cliff"--has ended in roughly the same way with a last minute compromise that failed to do much to chip away at the deficit. But those outcomes were all fairly obvious. Republicans and Democrats simply wanted to get through 2011 and 2012 without a government shutdown in the hope that the election would resolve the issue. Instead, voters opted again for divided government.
Now, the outcome of the 2013 debt ceiling showdown is far from obvious. This time, Obama is refusing to compromise at all. He believes we don't have a spending problem. Republicans remain convinced that a debt crisis will occur if the federal government fails to rein in spending.
Republicans are also convinced that hitting the debt ceiling would not lead to a default on the debt. It's true that tax receipts would provide the federal government with more than enough money to cover interest payments on the debt and some other vital services, but as the Bipartisan Policy Center points out, tax receipts on any given day may be smaller than interest payments due on that particular day.
Hitting the debt ceiling would be chaotic. The ensuing crisis may very well cost Republicans their majority in the House in 2014. But can they really go on for four more years consenting to Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits without doing anything to cut spending? For most, if not all, Republicans, that's simply unacceptable. That's why, if President Obama refuses to compromise at all on spending, we're likely going to hit the debt ceiling. And once that happens, the end game is anyone's guess.