WASHINGTON — It was a startling admission from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: “Nothing can get through the House right now. Nothing.”
For President Barack Obama and congressional leaders, the debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling has provided a stark lesson on the limits of their power. Each of their proposals to lift the limit, cut the deficit and allow the government to pay its bills sank before their troops had a real chance to weigh in.
What’s left is an assortment of contingencies and increasingly sour squabbling between intraparty factions deeply split over what to do as an Aug. 2 deadline ticks closer. No proposal has the critical mass to raise the limit and avoid default. The lack of clarity about just who is leading — and to where — has taken its toll in goodwill and trust.
That has liberated all sides from any urge to follow their leaders, freeing them to propose and oppose whatever they want on an issue that could frame the nation’s economic fate and send ripples around the world for years.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, felt free to issue Obama an ultimatum on government entitlements. Democrats, she said, will not vote for any cuts to Medicare or Social Security benefits, including raising the eligibility age for the former and reducing the size of annual cost of living increases for the latter. Obama was willing to consider those actions, but only if Republican leaders would agree to raising taxes. Rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties balked.
The leadership lag is even more visible in Republican ranks.
Some conservatives, in fact, are publicly dismissing their leaders’ warnings that a first-ever default on the U.S. debt could mean disaster, even plunge the country into another recession.
“That’s just not true,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and GOP presidential candidate, told reporters Wednesday. The government, she added, is collecting plenty of tax revenue to pay the interest on the debt, which she said would prevent a default on U.S. Treasury bonds.
Her contribution to the debate: a bill to guarantee that even during a default, military personnel and interest on the debt would be paid, ahead of Social Security benefits or civilian federal workers’ salaries. Republican leaders, from House Speaker John Boehner down, did not pile behind it.
“I would say to the speaker: ‘Excuse me for trying to lead,’” said the Bachmann bill’s co-sponsor. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
It was a snarky reference to Boehner’s own words during testy meetings with Obama this week, as the two sides try to find some path forward under an increasingly urgent deadline. They’re finding that it’s hard to lead without a decisive following. None of the proposals, big or small, has produced one.
The $4 trillion “big deal” that Boehner and Obama explored for days, sometimes in secret, didn’t survive the weekend. Convinced that it wouldn’t pass the House, Boehner abandoned it Saturday night in an email some Republicans said they received when it was made public.
Discussion then centered on a smaller version. But during Monday’s White House meeting, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was galled by that plan’s apparent cuts of only $2 billion upfront and began speaking of the prospects for a deal in the past tense. He presented what he described as an option of last resort that would give Obama authority — and saddle him with the blame — for raising the debt ceiling unless Congress objected.
Many conservatives didn’t like that either, saying Republicans would be passing up a golden opportunity to use the necessity to avoid a default to force spending cuts totaling trillions of dollars over the next decade and reduce the government’s size.
“This is our chance,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “We finally have the leverage to get the changes we need.”