Conservative groups like Club for Growth, along with some freshman GOP House members, aren't convinced House Speaker John Boehner is committed to cutting spending and reducing the deficit, despite reviving a year-old debate over federal spending during a speech Tuesday in Washington.
Boehner told an audience at a fiscal summit that in order for House Republicans to vote to increase the country's debt ceiling—likely to be necessary this fall after the election—he would seek equivalent corresponding spending cuts.
"When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase," he said. "This in the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance. Just so we're clear, I'm talking about real cuts and reforms necessary to meet the principle and we must."
But Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, a group that gives money to conservative candidates who are running against Republican incumbents, is unconvinced.
"It sounds nice, but we believe that actions speak louder than words and that votes have consequences," he says. "Many Republicans who ran with Tea Party support got to Washington and decided that, 'Hey, it's okay if we vote against deep spending cuts, it's okay if we increase the debt limit because we're just driving the car off the cliff at 55 miles an hour, while the Democrats are doing it at 70.'"
Keller says the promised cuts from the last debt deal haven't been realized and he's skeptical of Congress' dedication to instituting any more. That's because Republicans, as well as Democrats, have sought to change the make-up and amount of the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts scheduled to take effect post-election.
The effort to avoid or change the proposed cuts "doesn't send the signal that Republicans have learned any lessons from 2006 when voters tossed them out because they had abandoned their promise of fiscal responsibility," Keller says.
The argument over spending cuts in exchange for raising the country's debt limit should sound familiar. Last summer when the country was bumping up against its authorized debt ceiling, the Republican House leader and President Obama failed to reach a so-called grand compromise and a special committee designed to find answers similarly stumbled. In exchange for support of the needed vote, Republicans and Democrats agreed to $900 billion in mutually supported cuts and an additional $1.2 trillion in spending, split between defense and domestic programs, which was scheduled to be slashed later this year.
But the pace of change has disappointed some fiscal conservatives swept into office by the Tea Party wave in 2010.
"It remains to be seen whether or not we have the nerve to cut the spending," says Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a freshman Republican from South Carolina. "I'm finished being surprised or encouraged by peoples' language, I look to their action. To the extent [Boehner] focused on the fact that there wouldn't be tricks and gimmicks this year, that's very encouraging, we just need to make sure we follow through on that."
Mulvaney says if Congress gives up on the current cuts, why would anyone believe they are serious about future ones?
"If we give up on these cuts and we just admit to ourselves that we can't do it, then we're in much deeper trouble than we realize," he says. As it is, his constituents at home don't believe he and his colleagues have done anything to rein in spending.
"People don't believe that we actually cut spending and to a certain extent they are right, because we put off so much of the spending cuts over the last 10 years of the budget window," Mulvaney says. "We have a credibility problem with the people back home."
But by attempting to draw a firm line in the sand, Boehner gives Republicans something to run on with constituents who are disappointed with Congress as a whole.
"The speaker articulated what Republican members and candidates, the frustrations that they are seeing throughout the country, and that's that the American people want leaders who are going to step up to the plate and talk about jobs and how to cut spending to get our massive deficit under control," says Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner reacted to Boehner's speech by chastising the speaker for raising the possibility of preventing the United States from paying its bills.
"This commitment to protect the creditworthiness of the country is a fundamental commitment you can never call into question or violate because it's the foundation for any market economy," he said. "This allows us to govern, to fight wars, to deal with crises, recessions, to adjust to a changing world."
Last summer's stand-off resulted in the U.S. credit rating taking a hit from Standard and Poor's.
Isabel Sawhill, a budget policy expert at the Brookings Institute, says it's no wonder Boehner flagged the same strategy again for the next upcoming debt ceiling vote.
"There's no question that this has worked politically for Republicans, or at least worked well for them last time around," she says. "They are certainly keeping in mind that they got lots of spending cuts as a result of using this as a bargaining chip and so they are naturally saying to themselves, 'we can do this again.'"
As Boehner must navigate between the public's desire for spending cuts and disappointment with a gridlocked Congress, a spokesman pushed back against the notion that the speaker's remarks constituted "brinkmanship."
"The only people talking about 'brinksmanship' or a 'standoff' right now are the White House and other Washington Democrats," wrote Michael Steel in an E-mail to reporters Wednesday.
"Speaker Boehner made clear there's no reason to wait to deal with the debt limit and spending cuts until we're up against a deadline. He's ready to have those discussions right now if there is a willing partner."
Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle met with President Obama Wednesday for the first time since February, and aides say the issue was discussed.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.