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Voting to raise the debt limit could go a long way toward determining whether Republicans rise, fall or win re-election in 2012, just as a similar vote on the 2008 financial industry bailout did.
“This will be an election-defining vote,” Republican political consultant Ron Bonjean said.
Just talk to the Members who were there in 2008 when Congress was asked to authorize $700 billion in aide to the financial services industry.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who initially voted “no” on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, drew primary challenges in 2010 but survived. He believes switching to “yes” on TARP and the debt ceiling vote are analogous because both require lawmakers to walk a fine line between listening to constituents and doing what he thinks is best for the nation.
“It would be hard to say ‘no’ because for the almost last three years I’ve had to answer that question over and over and over,” Conaway said. “It’s the classic: Do you do what your constituents are telling you to do, or what’s best for the country? And there’s a balance there.”
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) said his vote in favor of the TARP bill cost him the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee.
“I was in the running and arguably the favorite,” Campbell said. However, he said, “Because my position on that was not popular among some of the members of that group, I wrote a letter and removed my name from consideration.”
Other lawmakers believe the best thing they can do, politically and from a policy perspective, is to push for cuts as part of raising the debt limit.
“I think it’s important we fight for those things that we think are important and that we live to fight another day after the next election,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said.
But he said it’s more difficult for Senate Republicans because they are in the minority.
“The president has significant power and so do Senate Democrats,” Cornyn added.
Sen. John Boozman, who won his seat despite backing the TARP bill as a House Member, said insisting on cuts is one thing lawmakers can do to help guard against a primary challenge.
“Many of us feel that in order to vote for it, it needs to have significant cuts,” the Arkansas Republican said.
He added, “I think it is a very, very important vote. The whole country is watching this.”
While it’s unclear what will be in any final deal to raise the debt ceiling, the GOP base is clearly clamoring for sizable spending cuts. And Republicans know those are the same people who helped propel them in 2010 into the House majority and boosted their numbers in the Senate.
Bonjean said he believes it will take spending cuts in the trillions for Republicans to be “politically protective of their election promises.”
If Republicans vote for a package that doesn’t pass conservative muster, “I think they are going to have problems with the conservative base,” said former Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.), who is now president of the Club for Growth.
The Club for Growth, and other groups, will score the debt ceiling vote to inform its decision on endorsements in 2012.
Chocola pointed to a last-resort plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which would virtually guarantee that the debt ceiling will be raised but would not guarantee that there will be spending cuts and budget reforms.
“We have spoken out against the plan,” Chocola said. “I think it reflects everything that is wrong with Washington.”
But the proposal appears to have gained traction because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is now working with McConnell on the plan to make it a more viable option in the Senate. One likely change would have Congress include $1.5 trillion in spending cuts in the proposal. Another would create a commission that would recommend additional cuts and reform entitlement programs.
In its current form, the McConnell plan sets up a process that would allow Republicans to vote against the debt ceiling increase and still allow the debt limit to be raised, which Chocola said is disingenuous.
“I think conservatives are smarter than that,” Chocola said. “I think they will see that the debt limit got raised, there were no meaningful reforms or cuts and Republicans let it happen.”
Chocola said if the debt deal ends up being unsatisfactory to the Republican base, there could be a backlash similar to what happened when Republicans backed TARP in 2008.
The House tried to pass TARP in September 2008, but Congressional leaders failed to supply the votes needed. The bill’s defeat spurred the Dow Jones industrial average to shed more than 777 points, the largest single-day drop in decades. After a few tweaks, the Senate approved the TARP bill in October, followed by the House. Thirty-three House Democrats and 25 House Republicans switched their votes to “yes” after initially voting “no.”
Of course, some Republicans faced tough re-elections or lost their seats in connection with their votes for TARP. Though financial experts said it was needed to avoid a collapse of the financial industry and the economy, the program was very unpopular with the electorate. The issue played a role in the loss of then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) to a convention challenger.
Support for TARP was also campaign fodder in the gubernatorial bid of former Rep. Gresham Barrett (S.C.). He lost the Republican nomination to Gov. Nikki Haley.
Jessica Brady contributed to this report.