Somewhere in the House Republican Conference, there are-allegedly-members who are prepared to do something incredibly daring: vote against an increase to the debt ceiling.
These members, the story goes, are prepared to enter into a catastrophic default even if their party wins a major concession from Democrats and secures deep cuts to government spending.
Doing so would risk economic calamity when the U.S. Treasury exhausts its borrowing authority sometime later this year. The domestic and global economies would be shaken. Social Security payments and Medicare benefits could freeze. It would go against the wishes of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) himself, who is seeking direct negotiations with Democrats on a spending deal.
With McCarthy set to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday, these potential Never Raisers-that is, never raise the debt ceiling-seem reluctant to come forward or even commit to the bit, in order not to undercut McCarthy's hand.
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But a dozen-some Republicans surveyed by The Daily Beast on Tuesday acknowledged the likelihood at least some lawmakers balk at a potential debt limit deal-or held out the possibility that they themselves would, if their demands were not met.
Asked if he would consider voting against a deal if the spending cuts were not deep enough, freshman conservative Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN) was emphatic: "Of course."
"Look, we have record inflation. We're in a recession. We have continued supply chain issues. We've got to get our fiscal house in order…" said Ogles. "So yes, I would vote against it."
Posed the same question, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) had a similar, but curter, answer: "Yes."
On Twitter, meanwhile, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) has repeatedly tweeted that Congress "cannot raise the debt ceiling," not even qualifying it with a mention of a budget deal.
Republicans who have weathered past debt limit and shutdown fights know well that there is a sizable faction of the GOP that is comfortable with the possibility of losing Congress' highest-stakes game of chicken.
"There's always a danger of what I call the barn-burners…" said Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT). "If the door on the barn is broke, you don't burn down the barn. You fix the door… the winter's awfully cold."
But as Republicans press Democrats-who have so far vowed not to entertain negotiations whatsoever on the debt limit-to discuss a deal, the GOP faces a strategic bind.
Given the GOP's narrow House majority, if a number of Republicans reject a deal, it'd strengthen the hands of Democrats, whose votes are already needed to pass anything.
At the same time, Republicans have sought to convey control and soothe markets by insisting they will not allow a default to happen and will ultimately vote to raise the debt limit. But such statements all but acknowledge that the GOP has taken a hostage that they are unwilling to shoot-violating a cardinal rule of such high-stakes negotiations.
The truth, however, may be somewhere in the middle. There are Republicans who are unwilling to default, but there are also Republicans who show little interest in sacrificing their ideological purity to raise the debt limit. Previous debt ceiling increases have proven that some GOP members just don't want to vote to increase U.S. borrowing authority, even when there are spending concessions.
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In 2011, the last time Republicans extracted significant concessions for raising the debt limit, 66 Republicans still voted no. And the two most recent significant increases to the debt limit-in Dec. 2021 and Oct. 2021-209 and 206 Republicans voted against raising the debt ceiling, respectively.
If there are some Republicans who won't shoot the hostage, there are also some Republicans who won't not shoot the hostage.
The legislative branch's task of acknowledging the U.S. will pay its debts has long been routine and not a pressure point for one party to force policy changes. Stung by the decade-long budget cuts that resulted from the 2011 debt ceiling standoff, Democrats have dug into the position that raising the borrowing limit is non-negotiable.
Key lawmakers have said they don't intend to entertain any "deal" with Republicans and the White House has said that Biden's meeting with McCarthy is not an acknowledgement of any negotiation.
So long as Republicans are singing their current tune, it's hard to imagine Democrats feeling they urgently need to make major concessions.
If the recent history of the GOP is any indication, however, that could change quickly. In 2011, in talks with then-President Barack Obama, Republicans held out long enough that the federal government's creditworthiness was dinged for the first time ever. And those 66 Republicans who ultimately voted against the deal that lifted the debt ceiling and established sequestration simply said the intended cuts didn't go far enough.
In 2019, it was a similar story-only worse; two-thirds of the GOP conference, 132 members, voted down a debt limit and budget deal even when it was then-President Donald Trump who was urging them to pass it.
Notably, some of the Republicans explicitly holding out the vote-no threat were among those who blocked McCarthy's speakership bid last month, sending the House into chaos. That debacle also showcased a dynamic that could be key for the debt limit: leading up to the vote for speaker, only five members had openly said they were voting against McCarthy.
Those five members swore there were more people in their corner-much like members now who insist there are many more debt limit no-votes to look out for, even without naming names. As it turned out, there were 21 members prepared to vote against McCarthy.
In the Capitol this week, The Daily Beast spoke with a number of usual suspects for moves like this: conservatives who bash the government's debts and spending at all costs-and who've been willing, even recently, to go against leadership. But at this stage, even some hardliners were sticking to McCarthy's messaging.
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Asked if any Republicans might vote against a debt ceiling increase no matter what, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) said he was "not one of them."
On Capitol Hill, Massie has proudly taken up the mantle of "Dr. No," on account of his record of voting against nearly all bills. He saves his staunchest opposition to spending and budgeting measures. Yet, with his wing of the party empowered by McCarthy, he struck a far different note.
"I think we should do a responsible debt limit increase as soon as possible," Massie said. "I am wide open on the definition of responsible. I am not dug in."
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), who briefly mounted a challenge against McCarthy during the speakership standoff, said the GOP's position is that "we know there's going to be a raise."
"We want to make sure that the responsible thing is done on behalf of the American people, which is curtailing spending," Donalds said.
A key McCarthy holdout who negotiated concessions to the right wing, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), put the onus on Biden to "negotiate with a co-equal branch."
"We're going to have to constrain spending and put us on a path to balance and get ourselves in the right place, and we're not there. He's not negotiating," Roy said, before pointedly adding that, "if we don't get there, then we're not talking about a debt ceiling increase."
Roy's gesture at the possibility of a default if there are no talks was further than many Republicans have been willing to go so far. But recently, some GOP lawmakers have floated various off-ramps to the standoff that do not involve them caving to Democrats while somehow averting a default.
One being explored, for example, is so-called debt "prioritization," an idea that the worst fallout of a default could be avoided by having the federal government pay back some debts before others if the so-called "X date"-when the Treasury runs out of ways to extend borrowing authority-is reached.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), for instance, has pushed legislation that would require payments on the interest on the debt, and payment of Social Security, Medicare, and military-related borrowing, before anything else, with the idea that it'd protect the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government even in the unprecedented event of hitting the "X date."
But Republicans vetted that plan in the 2011 debt limit standoff, and they ultimately rejected it.
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More recently, experts at the Bipartisan Policy Center said prioritization would be a "logically excruciating task" that would invite a number of court battles and almost certainly lead to another downgrade of the U.S. government's creditworthiness, if not broad economic turmoil.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned the very idea of a default, suggesting that Democrats are using overblown rhetoric to scare them into retreating.
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX), chairman of the House Budget Committee, speculated to Punchbowl News earlier this week that the U.S. would not default on its debt even if it passed the "X date" because of obligations defined in the Constitution.
"Many believe, even constitutionally, that we have to pay the principal and interest on our debt," Arrington said. "We have to pay our creditors. Like, you can't not do that."
Most Republicans aren't entertaining the idea. "I don't buy it," said Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE). "A default's bad, period."
More realistic, Bacon suggested, was that Democrats and Republicans could come together and agree on a spending deal, despite Democrats' current posture and the GOP's past stances on debt limit talks.
"We have a few people who have a history of not wanting to ever vote for a budget or approps," he said, referring to appropriations (in other words: spending bills). "But we're in the governing majority-so I think we have some of our senior guys who are trying to say, 'Hey, this is what it means to be part of a majority, you negotiate, you make a deal, you vote on it.'"
And still, no matter what concessions Democrats make, some Republicans speculate there are members of their caucus who will remain unmovable.
"This has to be a bipartisan exercise, particularly when they're in the minority. But yeah, there'll be quite a few Republicans that just won't do it because they won't think whatever concessions the Democrats make are sufficient," Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The Daily Beast Tuesday.
"But again, something has to be done. It can't continue to be like this."
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