Chamber, GOP Butt Heads on Debt Ceiling

Politicians supported by the group in 2010 are at odds with the organization's debt-limit stance.

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Senators have come back early from the holiday to continue working on a resolution to the partisan deadlock over raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the legal limit on how much the U.S. government can borrow. For the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group that represents the interests of businesses and trade organizations, that agreement cannot come soon enough. Since the start of the debate, the chamber has been pushing for an increase to the debt ceiling, a position that pits the business organization against some of the very lawmakers it helped to elect in 2010.

The Chamber of Commerce was the top outside spender in the 2010 elections, buying nearly $32.9 million worth of ads, often opposing Democratic candidates. But now, some of the members of the Republican wave that the chamber helped to bring about are arguing that drastic spending cuts, without tax increases, will be necessary before the debt ceiling is raised. In January, Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue told MSNBC, "We absolutely support the expansion of the debt." In a May letter to all members of Congress, R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, urged lawmakers to raise the debt limit "expeditiously." And at a June event in Atlanta, Donohue jokingly told representatives threatening not to raise the debt limit, "We'll get rid of you."

[Read about President Obama's role as the "adult" in the debt ceiling negotiations.]

Republican representatives like North Dakota's Rick Berg, Ohio's Steve Stivers, and Colorado's Cory Gardner are a few of the many representatives who benefited from the chamber's ads in 2010 and have also spoken out against raising the debt ceiling without preconditions like heavy spending cuts. Indeed, in May, all 236 current House Republicans voted against a "clean" debt ceiling increase; that is, an increase without any substantial spending cuts or reforms.

At the heart of the divide is a fundamental disagreement over what is a greater priority: maintaining the nation's creditworthiness or addressing growing deficits and debt. In the May letter to Congress, Josten emphasized that to not raise the limit could have a profound negative impact. Failure to raise the debt limit by August 2, the Treasury Department's deadline to prevent a default, "would create uncertainty and fear, and threaten the credit rating of the United States," Josten wrote. Though the chamber is in favor of deficit reduction, raising the debt ceiling is priority one, according to Blair Latoff, its director of communications. "It would be great if Congress would go along with spending cuts but we also believe that getting the debt limit raised is imperative," she told U.S. News in an e-mail. She added, "We've consistently conveyed our belief that the debt limit should not become a political football. The consequences are great if we don't increase the limit and given where we are today, there is no other option."

[Read about why Obama wants all eyes on the flagging economy.]

But conservative Republicans who refuse to raise the limit without major cuts say the issue is a matter of principle, not political gamesmanship. According to Brian Straessle, spokesman for the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus, getting government spending under control is the "foremost priority." He continues, "From our point of view, the worst possible outcome is not to address the debt crisis. If you do not address that, the economic pain that we face will be horrendous." The Republican Study Committee backs a plan called Cut, Cap, and Balance, which proposes major cuts to federal spending, caps on future spending, and the introduction of a balanced budget amendment. The pledge, sponsored by prominent conservative organizations like Club for Growth, the 60 Plus Association, and several Tea Party groups, has also gained the support of 12 senators, 26 House members, and six 2012 Republican presidential candidates, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Republican pollster John McLaughlin says that Republicans who apply conditions to raising the debt ceiling are using the larger dispute as a means to an end: "This seems to be the only way to get the president's attention that he has to stop the spending spree."