Liberal Democrats, Tea Party Republicans skeptical of debt plan

WASHINGTON–What does Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut liberal and congressional veteran, have in common with Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Tea Party freshman from Texas?

Both are deeply skeptical about the latest proposal being floated in Washington to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and cut federal spending. Their shared outlook on the current debt-ceiling standoff ends there.

But they’re both part of the complicated political calculus that congressional leaders face as negotiations over the debt ceiling enter a final, make-or-break phase this week.

Farenthold, like other Tea Party-backed House conservatives, is among those who has said he would be unlikely to vote for any debt ceiling increase, no matter what else is included. And Larson, like other House Democrats, has said he’d prefer a “clean” debt ceiling hike, without any other budgetary provisions attached.

It’s the hard-line position of Republicans like Farenthold that give the otherwise sidelined House Democrats, including Connecticut’s all-Democratic delegation, a little bit of leverage in any agreement that’s reached, if there is one.

At least 59 Republicans, mostly Tea Party conservatives elected on a pledge of dramatic debt reduction, have told GOP leaders that they will not vote for any legislation that increases the nation’s ability to borrow more money. Unless some of those lawmakers relent on that pledge, Boehner will need House Democratic support for any measure to pass the House and avoid the U.S. government defaulting on some of its financial obligations.

“You never say never,” Farenthold said Monday of his position on the debt ceiling, but “I would be loath to support” any increase. “I think part of why the freshman class was elected was to hold some of the traditional Republicans’ feet to the fire on some of the fiscal issues,” he explained.

But won’t that tough stance force Boehner to woo House Democrats, softening the spending cuts or making other concessions in any deal to avoid a U.S. government default. “Could be,” Farenthold shrugged before hurrying off to a closed-door Republican briefing.

Larson, for his part, said at a press conference Monday that Democrats were “united” against any deal that required multiple votes to increase the debt limit before the next election, as a new proposal outlined by Boehner today would do. Boehner’s latest proposal would increase the debt limit in two stages: the first one would be coupled with $1 trillion in immediate federal spending cuts and the second debt ceiling hike would come after a panel of 12 lawmakers recommended additional spending reductions.

Larson said that would not clear away the “cloud” of economic uncertainty that now hangs over the country, instead bringing Congress back to the debt-ceiling brink again in six months when the second vote hits.

The current political calculus reminds Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, of the 2008 vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or “TARP,” which bailed out major U.S. financial firms as the U.S. economy appeared on the brink of a total meltdown that fall.

House Democrats provided the bulk of votes to get TARP through the House, even though it was proposed by then-Republican President George W. Bush. Larson said his caucus isn’t eager for a replay, in which his party is on the line for a politically toxic deal that becomes GOP campaign fodder in the 2012 election.

Democrats have “seen that movie before,” Larson quipped earlier this month as it became increasingly clear that the GOP would need some Democratic support for any deal. In the current standoff, he said, Democrats are worried they’re going to be forced to choose between “the economy tanking or the benefit programs of the people you’re sworn to serve.”

“There’s no good choice there,” he said.

At the same time, Larson acknowledged that the Tea Party-conservative stance taken by some House Republicans has at least ensured that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is at the negotiating table, able to exercise some leverage.

Normally, because the House majority can rule with an iron fist, “the minority is more an appendage that they are a central player,” noted Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. In the current negotiations, “their role is still a secondary one” but they can exact some promises as the White House and the GOP try to reach an agreement.