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Debt ceiling hard-liners face a political dilemma

WASHINGTON — House Republican freshmen are caught between rock-solid fiscal conservatism and a political hard place.

The class of 2010 that lifted the GOP to its comfortable House majority pushed the leadership to a vote Tuesday on legislation that would slash spending by trillions of dollars and require a balanced budget constitutional amendment in exchange for an increase in the nation's borrowing limit.

But the measure's chances are poor in the Senate, setting the stage for a backup plan from congressional leaders that would allow the government to avoid a default on Aug. 2.

That would force freshmen to back an increase in the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, and some constituents are telling them not to do it.

"I'm actually being accused of selling out back home," Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said in an interview. "Some folks don't want to raise it under any circumstances. I tried to explain to them that this is the one chance to actually change Washington, so most folks will come around after we have that discussion."

The former state lawmaker who ousted the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Democrat John Spratt, said he was hearing from the "extreme right wing."

Solid backing of tea partiers helped propel several freshmen to Washington, boosting the candidacy of citizen-lawmakers such as car dealers, pizza shop owners, farmers and businessmen. The Tea Party Express on Tuesday threatened GOP primary challenges to Republicans who support Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's alternative plan to give President Barack Obama the power to order an increase in the debt limit of up to $2.5 trillion over the coming year.

Another tea party group warned about the "disease of Republican compromise" infecting Washington and acceding to Obama's demands.

On the other side, freshmen Republicans face pressure from McConnell's sober warning that failure to raise the debt ceiling could be blamed on Republicans and ensure another term for Obama in 2012. Separately, House Republicans are hearing from business owners who echo the dire warnings from economists and financial analysts about the ramifications of a government default.

The votes in the coming days could have widespread implications for GOP freshmen next year, determining whether they get a challenge from within the party in a primary or have to answer for their decisions in the general election.

A new CBS poll found the public had soured on both Obama and congressional Republicans in the debt talks, but the GOP got lower marks than the president.

Frustrated with the president, about 20 freshmen took a bus to the White House on Tuesday to press Obama to detail his deficit-cutting plan.

"We don't care about re-election. We're here to do the work and we're asking the president, put it in writing, let's debate it," said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y.

Scoffing at claims of economic calamity if the debt ceiling isn't raised, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said such statements are "absolutely wrong" and "misleading the American people."

Neither Obama nor a White House official met with the group and they returned to the Capitol.

Debt ceiling hard-liners face a political dilemma 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 9:56pm]
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