As it battles President Obama for control over the direction of the country, the Republican Party has repeatedly wielded the weapon of party discipline. By not deviating from the party line, the GOP can make one direct, uncomplicated case against the president, as it did with healthcare reform. But a simmering split between Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate is threatening to undermine that weapon's effectiveness in negotiations over the debt ceiling.
In the latest tiff, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Tuesday curveball--a "backup" option if the parties aren't able to come together for a deal to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling--left many on Capitol Hill baffled, or furious. "Don't know what in the world McConnell in the Senate is thinking," wrote Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Twitter. House Speaker John Boehner, while diplomatically praising McConnell for proposing the plan, stopped short of throwing his support behind it. McConnell himself only offered it as a Plan B. But in a game of chicken, it's not smart to let your opponent know when you're willing to swerve. Democrats didn't know how to react to the McConnell plan, viewing it as only an academic idea unless House Republicans waver. "There's a feasibility hurdle it has to pass," says one Democratic congressional source, who added that most fellow Democrats think the plan will be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.
The Treasury Department says a debt ceiling deal must be done by August 2 to avoid a default. McConnell's plan would raise it incrementally over the next year and a half at the president's request, and would give Congress the power to stop the debt ceiling hikes only through a supermajority of two thirds in the House and Senate. McConnell's plan would also require Obama to propose spending cuts equal to the amount that the debt ceiling is being raised, but those proposed cuts wouldn't be mandatory. McConnell's is the latest new idea thrown into the negotiations by Senate Republicans. Before that, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, second in command for the GOP leadership, offered user fee hikes and federal asset sales as a possible way to raise federal revenues without raising taxes as part of the deal. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn provoked the ire of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist by suggesting that the government could raise revenue through reforms of the corporate tax code. While Senate Republicans worked with some Democrats to look at a broad-based deficit reduction package as part of the now-defunct Gang of Six negotiations, House GOP lawmakers have focused their energy on remaining steadfast against giving in to Democrats on tax hikes.
The divide between House and Senate lawmakers isn't necessarily as stark as the one between the parties. But it can play a beguiling role in the legislative process. During the healthcare debate, for instance, the Senate stymied House Democrats' visions of a healthcare overhaul with a more aggressive role for the federal government. Overall, representatives tend to be younger and more ambitious—and with more to lose from a political mistake. Senators more often have reached the pinnacle of their political careers and, with six-year terms vs. two for House members, are perhaps years away from their next election. And the Senate's arcane parliamentary rules and procedures can force lawmakers to be creative and focus on compromising with individual senators' leanings rather than the House's long tradition of passing bills through partisan discipline.
In divided government, the chamber with the highest hurdle for passage has the most leverage. Today, that's the House of Representatives, where freshmen Republicans, elected as part of the Tea Party wave, are very reluctant to give ground on the debt ceiling or tax increases. As the debates have dragged on, the perception on Capitol Hill has grown that Boehner has been pushed to the sideline by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose aversion to deal-making makes him a better reflection of the House Republicans. Time will tell whether such stubbornness remains a sharp arrow in the GOP quiver or, if it splits the houses more openly and becomes an albatross.