The Fox newscaster, Neil Cavuto, challenged her. “Yes, but a lot people voted to raise the debt ceiling, because the government would shut down without it, right?”
“Well, a lot of people did,” Noem said. “But that doesn’t make it right.”
In September, with the election two months off and the Republican Party pushing hard in every corner of the country, Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan published a book called “The Young Guns,” appearing on television together and releasing a slick one-minute video that looked like a campaign ad. “A new team is ready to bring America back,” the video proclaimed.
The book plugged some of their favorite Young Gun candidates, including Roby. She won. So did Noem and Ribble, helping the Republicans win 242 seats and capture the House by a historic margin.
Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), the incoming House speaker who also had worked hard on behalf of many candidates, quickly grasped the potential dilemma posed by 87 newcomers with steep expectations. The House was now stocked with people who had little interest in rubber-stamping another debt-limit increase.
“I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with” the debt limit, Boehner told reporters on Nov. 19. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”
Chapter 4: Rebels with a cause
That wasn’t what some new members wanted to hear. Soon after his election, freshman Tim Scott of South Carolina raised the issue on a nationally-syndicated Christian radio show.
“Are we going to continue to raise the debt ceiling and sell an illusion to the American people? My answer is no,” said Scott, who had just been chosen as one of two liaisons between the leadership and the freshman class.
Outside groups fueled the fire. At an orientation hosted by the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks, former congressman Dick Armey, a co-author of the 1994 Contract With America, exhorted dozens of freshmen with words promoting rebellion rather than allegiance: “You don’t owe your office to the majority. You owe your office to the people who put you there.”
The freshmen also heard from GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who offered numbers showing that a majority of Americans did not want the debt limit raised. That sparked lengthy discussions, according to several of those in attendance. The freshmen “left basically saying that if they were going to raise it, ‘We absolutely have to get something in return,’ ” FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon recalled.
About that time, Rep. Jason Chaffetz went to Cantor’s office to chat. Chaffetz, a Utah sophomore, had developed a close bond with Cantor and McCarthy.
Chaffetz asked Cantor: Now that we control the House, how do we use our power?
Cantor didn’t hesitate.
“He said, ‘One of the biggest things that’s going to happen is that we have to deal with the debt ceiling,’ ” Chaffetz recalled in a recent interview. “He, in particular, knew a long time ago that that was going to be a big deal.”
That was a sharper message than Boehner’s, and it had come from his number two.
Chapter 5: Warnings
Others in official Washington had not yet grasped quite how big a deal the debt limit could become.
The White House, though, had an inkling. Obama and his advisers had picked up on the debt-limit fervor. They say they took a run at increasing the debt ceiling as part of a tax package that passed Congress in December, but got no traction. Asked recently about what happened, they reacted with some irritation.
“There was no market for doing the debt limit in December,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was describing internal discussions. “Neither the Democrats or Republicans were ready to deal with it. . . . You can’t force action.”
At a Dec. 7 news conference to announce the tax deal, which included an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, a reporter asked Obama why the debt limit hadn’t been addressed. It would seem, the reporter said, that the Republicans will “have a significant amount of leverage over the White House now.”
Obama responded, “When you say significant leverage . . . what do you mean?”
The reporter said the GOP might refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama signed off on spending cuts “that probably go deeper and further than you’re willing to do.”
Obama directed his answer at the GOP leadership. “Look, here’s my expectation,” he said. “I’ll take John Boehner at his word — that nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse. . . . Once John Boehner is sworn in as speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.”