Conservative groups give GOP a pass on debt ceiling hike, with strings attached

Chris Moody

When House Republicans vote Wednesday on a bill to temporarily lift the federal debt ceiling, they won't have enthusiastic support from the conservative movement—but they won't get hell for it either.

Some of the most prominent conservative groups that have opposed raising the debt ceiling will give House Republicans a (one time) pass when they vote on a short-term debt ceiling extension. The mild voices of support from the ideological coalition of groups, however, come with a price: They'll give Republicans a chance, but they expect the GOP to demand a plan to balance the federal budget when they ultimately negotiate with Democrats over financing the federal government.

Groups like the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the American Conservative Union, which signed a letter with more than 40 other organizations last week demanding a balanced federal budget, said they will give Republicans some breathing room on the debt limit now under the assumption Republicans will stand firm on the balanced budget plan later.

“The Club for Growth will not oppose tomorrow’s vote on the debt ceiling,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement Tuesday. “The Club for Growth will, on the other hand, strongly oppose any efforts during the upcoming debate over the continuing resolution and sequester that fail to arrest out-of-control spending and put sensible limits on the growth of government.”

At a members-only retreat last week, House Republicans emerged from three days of private meetings with an offer to extend the debt ceiling with the demand that the Democrat-controlled Senate pass a traditional budget resolution. According to the Republican plan, if the Senate fails to pass a budget by April, House Republicans will automatically withhold their colleagues' paychecks.

"No budget, no pay," declared House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a statement Friday. Cantor's line is expected to set the tone for the House Republicans' public relations messaging. The upper chamber has not passed a traditional budget since April 2009.

If the House votes to raise the debt ceiling Wednesday, Republicans in the chamber will have about three months to make good on the promise to pass a budget proposal that balances the federal government's books in 10 years. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on Tuesday said he would craft an outline to balance the budget within that time and, at a closed door meeting of House Republicans Tuesday night, House Speaker John Boehner assured colleagues he supports that plan.

"With the right reforms in place, Paul’s goal is to advance a budget that balances within a decade," Boehner said, according to a source inside the room. "I applaud that goal, and share it."

Since the House Republican announcement, conservative groups have voiced cautious support.

"Whether it's now or three months from now, a debt ceiling stalemate seems like the only available alternative," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU). "ACU prefers a stalemate now but is willing to accept the commitment from House leadership to put something on the table in the next few weeks—as long as it commits to stand firm on the next debt ceiling deadline, and especially if meaningful reform is not accepted by Democrats by then.”

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform who hosts a weekly meeting of conservative activists, said there is support among conservatives for the Republican plan—with the exception of the national tea party group FreedomWorks, which is urging members to vote against it—even if that means temporarily raising the debt ceiling.

"This is a four-year fight," Norquist said. "Pushing the debt ceiling fight off three months is a tactical decision. It's not a retreat. It's not even a tactical retreat. I think it's wise to not get into arguments on tactics and strategy and act as if they're arguments over principle."