House Leadership at Odds Over Debt Ceiling Strategy

House and Senate Republicans are engaging President Obama over debt limit negotiations, and more specifically, if a tax increase or closure of “loopholes” will be in a final package.

After a series of meetings, beginning with one at the White House on Sunday, discussions have been mired by tension on both sides. At issue is how far Republicans should go in giving in to White House demands while staying true to their promise not to raise taxes on individuals or businesses, and to reduce spending, even entitlement programs.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has been in Washington for 20 years and is used to how high level negotiations take place within the beltway. But his greatest challenge is that many of the recently elected House freshmen and younger members do not want to vote to increase the debt ceiling without strong concessions from the White House and without a whiff of a tax increase.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday suggested Senate Republicans might agree to raise the debt ceiling if equal cuts were made over the next few years. His suggestion seemed to fall flat with most House Republicans.

 President Obama is working Boehner hard, wanting him to agree to a debt ceiling increase with a future promise to address Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

The White House has resorted to scare tactics by telling the American people Republicans are seeking to significantly reduce entitlement programs, with President Obama going so far as to say seniors may not receive Social Security checks in August unless a deal is reached soon.

“I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven’t resolved this issue, because they may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it,” Obama said in an interview today with CBS News.

The President is also turning Wall Street executives loose on Capitol Hill in an effort to convince Republicans the stock market will act unfavorably, like it did in October of 2008 when the House voted down the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), if a deal is not reached by early August.

As of Wednesday, Boehner is adding another condition in order to gain Republican support – passing a Balanced Budget Amendment.

“We have to have real controls in place to make sure this never happens again – real controls like a Balanced Budget Amendment,” Boehner said in a statement to reporters.

Even Boehner’s closest allies in the House admit such a strategy is a “huge” risk.

“He’s playing for historic stakes,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Politico. “What he’s trying to accomplish will literally change the trajectory of the country.”

Discussions have been intense, but not nearly as tough as the behind the scenes struggle taking place between House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The issue at the center of the storm is how Boehner and Cantor want to deal with the White House and the Republican caucus. Both the Speaker and his top lieutenant are known as fiscal conservatives. However, there are big differences in how they came to power and how they use their influence within the caucus.

John Boehner was elected to Congress in 1990. Boehner climbed the ladder in the Republican caucus by getting elected as chairman of the House Republican Conference, but ran into trouble after being associated with, and in what some described as a “coup,” led by former Congressmen Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and Bill Paxton, to overthrow then Speaker Newt Gingrich. Boehner was never formally tied to the group and denied he was trying to overthrow Gingrich.

Boehner was ousted as chairman of the House Republican Conference in 1998, after Republicans lost five seats. Supporters of Boehner said while the lost was tough on him, “spending some time in the desert” was worthwhile because it gave him time to get his feet back under him. In 2006 and in a surprise victory, Boehner was elected as House Majority Leader following Tom Delay’s resignation. Even after the Republicans lost the House later that year, Boehner was elected as Minority Leader and was the leader of the House Republicans.

Cantor was elected to Congress in 2000 and began his steady climb to power. He was appointed Chief Deputy Whip, the highest appointed position within the Republican caucus as a freshman and then rose to Whip and finally to Majority Leader in 2010. In conjunction with fellow Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, they formed the “Young Guns” caucus to help elect more Republicans to the House and even co-authored a book under the same name.

Cantor has been hard-charging, even walking out of budget meetings with the Vice President Joe Biden and exchanging barbs with President Obama during a budget meeting on Tuesday. Cantor claims to have the support of the conservatives in the House and feels the White House is getting way too much, way too soon. This is adding tension to an already tense relationship between him and Boehner.

Aides to both Cantor and Boehner downplay any tension between the two, but fellow Republicans sense a growing divide between them, and unless an agreement is reached with the Republican caucus soon, it may grower wider.

Cantor best summed up today what is going on in Congress: “Nothing can get through the House right now; nothing.”

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