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When Compromise Is ‘Going Soft’

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Tea party activists are urging their members to write lawmakers and tell them to insist on a debt limit increase that’s paired with significant spending cuts. But some worry that if they aren’t flexible, Congressional conservatives may be left out of a final deal.

Tea party activists are urging House Members to resist compromise in the debt limit debate, but too firm a stance by the conservative faction could marginalize the group rather than strengthen it when a final deal is cut.

Conservatives saw this happen in the continuing resolution debate, when House GOP freshmen insisted on major spending cuts that ultimately were whittled down to satisfy Democrats in the Senate and White House. Outside groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of that March defeat, but some Members are trying to manage conservative expectations on the terms for raising the federal debt limit.

"There's no doubt when you control one of the three levers of government it's very difficult to get 100 percent of what you want," Rep. Tim Scott said. "So to sell anyone on the fact that you're going to end up with all that you want or most of what you want, you're probably selling a bill of goods."

The South Carolina Republican said he learned his lesson during the CR debate, when conservatives pushed for $100 billion in spending cuts and ultimately had to settle for $38.5 billion in a deal brokered by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Scott ultimately voted for the deal, but 54 of his GOP colleagues didn't because they said the cuts weren't deep enough. The CR easily passed the House, thanks to the support of 85 Democrats.

The lesson, according to Scott: "Don't promise $100 billion."

But not all of Scott's freshman colleagues are taking the same moderating tone. Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite from suburban Chicago, said any debt limit deal should include a balanced budget amendment. The first-term Republican said his lesson from the CR deal, which he voted against, is just the opposite of what Scott learned. For Walsh, the message from his constituents was that they "don't want us at all to get soft on this one."

"So we will push as hard as we can to get this town serious about spending," Walsh said in an interview. "And if voting not to raise the debt ceiling will do it, speaking for myself, I won't do it."

Walsh predicted "there will be enough fiscally conservative Republicans" in the Conference to block a deal that doesn't sufficiently reduce spending in exchange for raising the debt limit, and grass-roots organizations throughout the country are working overtime to make sure that faction sticks together as bipartisan negotiations continue in the lead-up to the Aug. 2 deadline when the government is expected to begin defaulting on its debt payments.

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