Rep. Joe Walsh Steps Up in Budget Debate

Illinois’s unlikeliest House rep has put himself front and center in the high-pressure debate over the debt ceiling and budget cuts. But by pulling his colleagues to the right, is he guaranteeing that a less conservative solution will pass?

You might have seen this video from a couple weeks ago, starring Joe Walsh, the suburban Representative who upset Melissa Bean in one of the big surprises of the midterm elections, in which he accuses the President of lying about the importance of raising the debt ceiling by August 3:

Walsh followed up on Fox Chicago, throwing down (a bit less bombastically) against Jan Schakowsky, one of the state’s more progressive politicians:

And he went national, appearing on CNN, on MSNBC with professional decibel-pusher Chris Matthews, and in a much more coherent interview on Bloomberg today.

In that last interview, Walsh comes out against the budget plan proposed by colleague Mitch McConnell. But Walsh hasn’t just been a talking head on the issue—he’s got 90 of his Republican House colleagues agreeing not to vote against the plan, but to kill it before it even gets to a vote. (You can read Walsh’s letter here.) The freshman congressman has deftly emerged as a voice for the conservative wing of House Republicans… but in doing so, the House majority might end up passing a less conservative solution to the debt-ceiling time bomb. Here’s how it works.

In essence, there seem to be two factions developing among House Republicans—one that’s more moderate/establishment, represented by McConnell’s slightly daft plan, which consists of cuts and a Strongly Worded Letter:

The McConnell-Reid plan would allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling three separate times for a total $2.5 trillion increase. A “motion of disapproval” would be voted on each time. It would cut $1.5 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. There would be no provision for revenue.

Basically it allows Congress to raise the debt limit by proxy while getting on record their shock that the President would raise the debt limit. That this is considered more politically appealing than raising it is absurd, but I guess it doesn’t make it not real.

It’s not that Walsh and his fellow conservatives are opposed to raising the debt limit; they just want more for doing it. Walsh has signed a pledge to Grover Norquist, the longtime conservative gadfly, that he won’t raise taxes—which includes not allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire. Then there’s a balanced-budget amendment, part of the Cut, Cap, and Balance plan that passed the House and is headed for “brief euthanization” in the Senate. The BBA would make it virtually impossible to raise taxes by instituting a supermajority rule like the one in California (which is currently gutting its courts system, according to a chilling LA Times article). Since the amendment would arguably not make it as hard to raise spending, there was real concern that the BBA would make things worse… like, into California.

A few days ago, Politico discussed the idea that conservative House Republicans would be more likely to compromise after they had their fun with the Cut, Cap, and Balance plan. But Walsh’s letter suggests that’s not happening:

Given the mounting signatures on the Walsh letter, the momentum is moving in exactly the wrong way in the House. That, plus the lack of clarity about where House Dems stand on the McConnell plan, mean it’s becoming increasingly clear that there will have to be a real shift among House Republicans in order for the debt ceiling to be raised.

And that’s where things get crazy. McConnell and his fellow Republican leaders obviously want a relatively conservative plan. Walsh doesn’t have McConnell’s institutional power, but he does seem to have a nontrivial number of votes under his sway, or at least people who are sympathetic to his plan.

Which raises the possibility, as Jed Lewison demonstrates, that Walsh’s hard line actually shifts the power back to the minority—every Republican who signs Walsh’s letter is another Democrat who has to sign on to whatever plausible final product Boehner and McConnell can concoct. In other words, the more to the right the House leans, the less conservative the House bill will be. Real-world risks aside, it’s fascinating gamesmanship.

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