Freshmen Face Early Test on Debt

Published Nov 3, 2010. By Ambreen Ali. In Congress.org.

Newly elected conservatives may face an early choice between the Republican leadership and tea-party supporters.

Soon after they take office, Congress will face a vote on raising the federal debt limit. It's a perennial move that the party in power has to make to keep the government from defaulting.

But it won't be so simple this time around.

Republicans will have to take the lead on the issue in the House, but they were voted into power partially due to a platform preaching fiscal responsibility.

"It is going to be a very potentially explosive time when the debt limit comes up," said Robert Bixby, president of the Concord Coalition, a deficit-reduction advocacy group.

Republican leaders have already said they will not let the government shut down, but tea partyers have also issued their warnings against compromise.

Republican Whip Eric Cantor has said the GOP will try to use the debt limit vote to secure deficit-reducing concessions from the Democrats.

"I don't think the public wants to see a government shutdown," the Virginia lawmaker has said.

Contrast that with a warning issued Wednesday by tea-party leaders, who fear that Republican leaders will strong-arm the newly elected into compromising on their principles.

"The American people have spoken loud and clear and they're not in a flexible mood. They are not in the mood to compromise," said Mark Meckler, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots.

The group adheres to the Contract From America, which calls for a cap on federal spending, a balanced budget, and a two-thirds majority for tax increases.

It's a combination that makes it difficult to seriously reduce the deficit, Concord's Bixby argued.

The Patriots have announced that they will host a freshman orientation for newly elected members in the coming months.

Meckler's colleague, Jenny Beth Martin, said the event will focus on two legislative priorities—repealing the health-care law and balancing the budget—and will include ample warnings that the grassroots is prepared to vote out any candidate who doesn't live up to their campaign promises.

"We'll be back in two years to do this all over again and get people who get it right," Martin said.

The tough rhetoric against compromise has troubled groups like the Concord Coalition, even though they agree with the tea party position on fiscal responsibility.

In a blog post ahead of midterm elections, Bixby wrote:

Few candidates have had anything useful to say about realistic fiscal solutions. To the contrary, many new members of Congress will have been elected on pledges to foreswear the very things that will be needed: spending cuts in popular entitlement programs and defense, tax increases and, most of all, compromise.

Bixby's group favors raising the debt limit despite its focus on reducing the deficit.

"You have to do it," he said. "You can't really default on the debt willfully just because you're ticked off."

But the Concord Coalition hasn't written off the new members just yet. They plan to reach out to them and look for opportunities to advance their common cause.

In the best-case scenario for his group, Bixby anticipates working with the lawmakers to find realistic ways of addressing the country's fiscal problems.

"If you start out with the premise that getting the budget back into shape is important, then it's a matter of looking at the numbers and how you would do that," he said.