This article was reported by Lori Montgomery, Paul Kane, Brady Dennis, Alec MacGillis, David Fahrenthold, Rosalind Helderman, Felicia Sonmez and Dan Balz. It was written by Dennis, MacGillis and Montgomery.
In mid-January, newly installed as the GOP House majority leader, Virginia’s Eric Cantor rose to the podium inside a spacious hotel ballroom to deliver a message to his troops, including the 87 newcomers who had given the party control of the House.
A vote to increase the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit was coming soon, he told the caucus members who had gathered at the Marriott in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for a closed-door retreat less than 10 days after taking power. Think of it as a “hidden” opportunity, he implored them, a chance to achieve their goal of reining in the federal government and its spending habits.
“I’m asking you to look at a potential increase in the debt limit as a leverage moment when the White House and President Obama will have to deal with us,” said Cantor, one of several new House leaders who detailed the game plan for the coming months. “Either we stick together and demonstrate that we’re a team that will fight for and stand by our principles, or we will lose that leverage.”
The frantic showdown that followed, bringing the nation to the brink of default, looked like the haphazard escalation of a typical partisan standoff.
It was the natural outgrowth of a years-long effort by GOP recruiters to build a new majority and reverse the party’s fortunes. That effort began before the economy collapsed in 2008, before the government bailouts that followed, before the tea party rose in response to push its anti-tax, anti-spending message.
With the backing of the GOP establishment, Cantor and two colleagues banded together as the “Young Guns,” drawing their nickname from a magazine feature anointing them rising stars. They scoured the country for like-minded conservatives who shared their uncompromising commitment to shrinking the federal government. They showered these Young Gun recruits with money and support and exhorted them to maintain a laser-like fiscal focus.
By early 2010, talk of the “debt ceiling” began to creep into the lexicon of some Young Gun candidates, first as a reaction to Congress yet again giving the nation the authority to borrow more money. But in time, it became a shorthand, their synonym for all that was wrong with Washington.
How the shorthand of 2010 grew into the showdown of 2011 is the story of a Republican resurgence that brought immense advantage to the leadership but also created immense expectations among this new breed of lawmaker. Having built a majority on ideology, the GOP leadership found itself struggling to control a rambunctious rank and file determined to live up to the bold rhetoric that had brought it to Washington.
The newcomers took Cantor seriously when he urged them in January to see the debt ceiling as leverage. Democrats called the GOP irresponsible for gambling with the economy and the nation’s flawless credit. Republicans countered that an epic clash over the debt limit was inevitable, given the outcome of the election and widespread anger with runaway government spending.
When the deal was finally done and the threat of an economy-rattling default averted, the newcomers’ disdain for compromise had proved effective. They got most of what they wanted and gave little ground.
The new majority emerged emboldened — and hankering for the confrontations to come — even as the financial markets and much of the country reacted with unease about what had just happened.
This account of the party’s transformation, and its impact on the nation’s economic course, is drawn from interviews with the leading participants during this summer’s drama and from earlier interviews, some of them recorded, at various points during the past 21/2 years.
Chapter 1: Inauguration blues
In January 2009, on a night aglow with inaugural balls and Democrats celebrating their newly-elected president, a gathering of Republican lawmakers picked at their dinners in the Caucus Room restaurant off Pennsylvania Avenue. They felt anything but cheerful.
The original Young Guns — Cantor, Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — were there, along with disconsolate colleagues from the House and Senate.
The evening started as “just another conservative bitch session,” Ryan later recalled. “It was basically, ‘What just happened?’ ”
Excuses mingled with a search for explanations. Some around the table argued that Republicans had simply fallen victim to the crumbling economy. Others suggested that their presidential nominee, John McCain, simply hadn’t stirred enough enthusiasm among voters.