Politics & Policy

Debt Challenge Makes for Two Lonely Republicans


Trying to convince slash-the-government Republicans on Capitol Hill that tax increases will be necessary to bring down the nation's federal debt is a thankless job. So is convincing them it's in their political interest to help President Barack Obama and the Democrats raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. That makes Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California the Republicans' odd men out.

As a summer deadline to increase the federal borrowing limit approaches, McCarthy is warning his colleagues that inaction is not a viable option. It's a tough pitch at a time when Republican leaders, maneuvering for advantage in the debt debate, say they'll allow the nation to default unless the deal includes steep spending cuts and no tax increases.

Coburn, a blunt obstetrician-turned-senator known as "Dr. No" for his tough talk about the budget, is preaching an equally unpopular message to fellow Republicans. He's less concerned about the short-term debt ceiling debate than the country's long-term debt burden. If lawmakers from both parties are serious about averting a debt crisis, he says, they must accept a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes (though Coburn prefers the more palatable "revenue increases").

Coburn's colleagues are used to his frequent lectures on the subject. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois calls it the "doomsday speech." Coburn brings in economists and Wall Street executives to spell out for senators how the rapidly expanding debt threatens prosperity. Republican Senator Bob Corker (Tenn.) attended one of Coburn's productions earlier this year. The guest speakers were two hedge fund managers—a Democrat and a Republican. Corker says they made a pretty convincing pitch: "These practitioners, they deal with markets on a daily basis. And you had one from each side of the aisle saying the same thing, which was that we have to deal with this issue." Republican Senator Mark Kirk (Ill.), who attended another Coburn session, said by the time it was over, "You could see a lot of light bulbs going off in other senators' heads."

McCarthy, a third-termer who once ran a sandwich shop and now is his party's No. 3 leader in the House, is a bit subtler in his efforts to persuade conservative members to support a debt ceiling increase. Congress must act by Aug. 2, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, to avoid an unprecedented default. As the party whip in the raucous and polarized House, McCarthy has the job of creating the political space for leaders to negotiate a deal. While his bosses, including House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), make a public show of saying they're against it, McCarthy is working quietly to begin getting members in line. This good-cop-bad-cop routine lets the speaker publicly keep up pressure on the Democrats—and maintain street cred with scores of Republican lawmakers who are either loyal to or fearful of antitax Tea Partiers.

At the moment it seems unlikely that McCarthy has anywhere near the 218 Republican votes he'll need to pass a deal. Like Coburn, he routinely corners fellow Republicans with a chart-heavy presentation on the basics of the debt. He also takes lawmakers on field trips to federal bond auctions at the Bureau of the Public Debt in downtown Washington, where they can watch the U.S. go into debt in real time.

For their efforts, Coburn and McCarthy have earned the ire of powerful forces within their party. "Kevin's in a tough spot," says Republican Representative Sean Duffy (Wis.), elected last fall with Tea Party support. "He's going to have to work our people very hard and make a very persuasive case as to why we should go along with this." The usually gregarious McCarthy, 46, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Coburn, 63, is tangled in a heated public spat with the influential antitax crusader Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who recently compared him to a malignant cell. Coburn, a cancer survivor, said he doesn't take the criticism personally. "I'm just sorry that he feels that he has to say those things," he said in an interview in his office. "I recognize that if we're ever going to accomplish anything, we have to allow the other side some type of win. ... We have to be able to compromise in terms of using revenues if we want to reform things like Medicare and Social Security."

Coburn says there's little chance of getting Republicans to go along with such a compromise unless Democrats are willing to make aggressive cuts in government spending. So far, he says, he hasn't seen it. Until recently he was one of three Republican members of a bipartisan group, known as the Gang of Six, working on a proposal to shave some $3.8 trillion off the debt through cuts to entitlements and tax increases. He left last month, saying Democrats weren't willing to cut enough from Medicare and other programs. Coburn says he can't blame his colleagues for being wary of any deal that doesn't reduce the size of the government. "If you vote to raise this debt limit and haven't fixed the problem," he says, "I think you're history."

The bottom line: As Republicans threaten to let the U.S. default, their leaders are quietly seeking support for a debt deal with the Democrats.

Davis is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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