Georgia debt ceiling debate

It will be the biggest test of tea party clout to date.

At least three members of Congress from Georgia have declared that they aren’t afraid of heights, and will oppose a reworked proposal by House Speaker John Boehner – $1 trillion in cuts to the federal budget in exchange for raising the federal government’s borrowing power by a slightly smaller amount.

“Compromise is what’s led us to the mess we’re in right now. We can’t compromise our way out of this,” U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, said in a Wednesday morning C-SPAN defense of his decision to oppose the Boehner plan.

On the other side is a GOP establishment worried about the impact of economic default on the economy and the party's political fortunes.

On camera, Graves was shown a copy of an editorial from The Wall Street Journal, which argued that defeat of the Boehner proposal would assure Obama’s re-election next year. “That’s an interesting opinion. They’re welcome to run for office themselves,” Graves replied. He is insisting that Congress first send to the states for approval a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

Nor was Graves, a favorite of tea party enthusiasts, fazed by reports that the nation’s AAA credit rating could be downgraded if the federal government can’t pay its bills after Tuesday – resulting in higher interest rates on everything from credit cards to car loans.

“I’m not certain, and I don’t think anyone can determine, that Boehner’s plan will prevent the downgrading from occurring,” he said. “We can’t allow a lot of this to force us into making bad decisions today. This is going to impact the next generation.”

Two other Georgia Republicans, Paul Broun of Athens and Phil Gingrey of Marietta, have expressed similar views – although Gingrey on Wednesday acknowledged “strong pressure” to change his mind.

Five other Georgia Republicans are keeping their powder dry – and so are enduring their share of a national deluge of phone calls and emails from groups on all sides. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants the Boehner plan passed. Tea partyists and the anti-tax Club for Growth want it stopped.

Among those on the fence is another Republican newcomer to Congress, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, president of the 2010 freshman class. “I’m looking forward to reading the final draft, checking the numbers and everything in it. But I’ll tell you this: The speaker’s got a lot more votes than the people who don’t want it to pass say he has,” Scott said in an interview with Jamie Dupree of AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB.

Scott said he is most worried about the impact that federal government’s inability to pay its bills would have on the economy. “The longest way out of this recession is to allow the default – so that’s not an option, in my opinion,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, said he, too, was waiting for a revision of Boehner’s plan before making a decision – and would not have supported the initial version. But Westmoreland dismissed concerns about the economic consequences of default.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people govern by fear, rather than what they think is right. I think it is right to reduce the size of government, to quit spending so much, to recognize we can’t spend our way out of debt,” Westmoreland told Scott MacFarlane of Channel 2 Action News. “To me, the right decision is to cut spending. You can’t let the fear of the unknown keep you from doing what you know is absolutely right.”

Boehner introduced his measure on Tuesday. But an immediate analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the GOP measure would cut the deficit by about $850 billion over 10 years, not the $1.2 trillion originally promised.

Even more embarrassing was a finding that the measure, which would provide a $900 billion increase in the nation's borrowing cap, would generate just a $1 billion deficit cut over the coming year.

Tea Party Patriots, a national group with strong Georgia membership, has used email and social networks to urge opposition to Boehner's bill. "I don't feel like Speaker Boehner is taking this problem seriously," said Jenny Beth Martin of Cherokee County, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "We're seeing the games that go on in Washington all the time."

Boehner's plan would also require delicate and crucial debt discussions during next year's campaigns – which means that tea party activists aren’t the only ones expressing skepticism. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declared the effort a waste of time. President Barack Obama has threatened a veto.

Even so, passage of the Boehner plan is important, as a measure of the House speaker’s ability to corral his ruling GOP members behind a single, negotiated position capable of surviving scrutiny by a Democratic-controlled Senate.

“The leader of the House Republicans is in a real pickle,” said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University. “You have the responsible Republicans versus the dead-enders, to a degree. It’s almost a game of chicken.”

Boehner isn’t helped by the fact that Republican members of his House – at least in Georgia – aren’t feeling much pressure to come to terms with their leader.

A sampling of rank-and-file turned up few activists who endorsed Boehner’s proposal.

Bertha Craig-Allen, former secretary of the Gwinnett County Republican Party, said the debt ceiling crisis has hit home, literally. Her mother recently had eye surgery and must have one more procedure. Craig-Allen said her mother is worried about whether she’ll have Medicare if the debt defaults.

“She has worked herself into a tizzy over this, and she’s just one of millions of people that rely on the Medicare system,” she said. “Watching her struggle and worry, I see the trickle down effect [of the crisis].”

But that doesn’t mean, Craig-Allen said, that the solution is raising the debt ceiling. She sympathizes with Boehner, but does not support his proposal. “I think some of our leaders are being forced to come up with decisions that aren’t necessarily what they stand for, but in the best interest of a larger picture, they are willing to cave a little bit to the left,” she said.

Marc Hyden, 27, of Marietta, called Gingrey – his congressman -- to register his opposition to raising the debt ceiling. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” said Hyden, a former state worker.

He opposes the Boehner proposal. “It looks like the spending cuts are discretionary, pretty fluffy,” he said.

Hyden conceded that the internal disagreement has created “a bit of a schism” in the state Republican party. That could be beneficial if the party becomes more conservative, he said, but “it could fracture the party.”

Until recently, Chip Lake of Cobb County was Westmoreland’s chief of staff in Washington. Now an Atlanta political consultant, Lake said Thursday’s outcome is anyone’s guess – but that Republicans are becoming less and less wary of the consequences of the failure to reach a debt-ceiling deal.

“At the end of the day, if you want to change the way business is done in Washington, you’re going to have to break china to do it. And I think we’re going through that,” Lake said.

Many Republicans in Congress don’t buy the Tuesday deadline, set months ago by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. “If we can get to that point, show people the world won’t end on Aug. 2,” Lake said there was a “high degree of likelihood” that the president would renew negotiations on terms more favorable to tea party conservatives.

Even temporary economic setbacks might be worth the pain, Lake said. “If it becomes more difficult to borrow money because maybe our bond rating has gone from a AAA rating to a AA bond rating, I think there are those that believe that that might not be a bad thing. It might make Congress finally say we really need to reform these spending obligations we have,” Lake said.

AJC staff writers Katie Leslie kleslie@ajc.com and Craig Schneider cschneider@ajc.com, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.