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Vote shows rift on debt ceiling

New surveys show public opinion souring on lack of progress

WASHINGTON – Republican leaders in the House pulled out all the stops Tuesday to pass legislation tying a debt ceiling increase to a tight, long-term cap on federal spending – a vote that appealed to conservatives but also underscored just how difficult it is for the GOP to control its rambunctious majority.

The GOP measure faces a veto threat from President Barack Obama, who warned Tuesday that the debt ceiling debate had entered the 11th hour with no time left for symbolic gestures or posturing, an implied criticism of the GOP “cut, cap and balance” measure.

“It’s time to get down to the business of actually solving this problem,” Obama said, pointing to the Aug. 2 deadline, when the Treasury Department will run out of money to pay the nation’s bills and face a disruptive federal default.

Obama lauded a new blueprint offered by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the “gang of six,” that would combine spending cuts and revenue increases in a $3.7 trillion deal approaching the “grand bargain” once sought by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. But it was also clear that the complex proposal would be difficult to pass at this late stage of the debate.

The House “cut, cap and balance” measure was considered symbolic because it stands little or no chance of passage in the Senate and was arranged by House GOP leaders as a rallying point for conservatives who otherwise would oppose a higher debt ceiling.

It would cut federal spending by $110 billion in 2012, cap future spending at 19.9 percent of gross domestic product and raise the debt limit only after Congress sends states a proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. That step would require approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, an improbable margin.

All but nine Republicans voted in favor, but the exertion required to pass such a conservative-leaning bill accentuated the difficulty Boehner faces in getting his caucus to act on the debt ceiling before Aug. 2.

“Tea party” activists and House GOP freshman who held expectations of vast spending cuts and historic budget reforms are likely to become embittered as a final deal on the debt ceiling begins to take shape. How to manage – or lower – their expectations will be a challenge for Boehner and other GOP leaders.

“No one’s really comfortable with raising the debt limit,” said freshman Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., who is reluctant to go along with a debt ceiling increase, as he noted past majorities in Congress have done, without tackling serious budgetary reforms.

“That’s what the 87 freshmen hate about this,” said Ribble, who ended up voting in favor of the GOP plan. “We’re pretty bullheaded about it because we don’t want people to say that about us.”

Intensifying pressure on Republicans were new rounds of surveys showing a shift in public opinion against GOP positions on the debt ceiling. A majority of Americans prefer Obama’s approach for combining tax revenue and spending cuts in exchange for the debt ceiling vote, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. At the same time, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed more Americans believe Obama, rather than the GOP, is acting in the country’s best interests.

Boehner on Tuesday assembled Republicans for an early-morning meeting that was as much about motivating rank-and-file lawmakers as ensuring the GOP had the votes secured to pass the bill.

Lawmakers were reminded of the importance of the day’s action: to showcase a GOP team working together to solve the nation’s debt ceiling question, with budget reforms conservatives have promised.

“The House has the opportunity to show the people that sent us here that we are serious about turning the page on the failed fiscal policies that this town has been about over the last several decades,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader, in a speech on the floor.

But in a sign of the conservative resistance to any debt ceiling deal, a prominent group known as the Tea Party Patriots blasted the House bill for ceding ground. The organization, made up of a network of local “tea party” activists, urged its members to tell Republican lawmakers to withhold their votes.