The ‘Hell No’ Caucus Makes Its Stand

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On Thursday afternoon, the House Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing on the consequences of a debt default. They invited four distinguished economists to sketch a gruesome picture: tanking markets, skyrocketing interest rates, a plunging dollar, a new recession–a grim chain of horrible outcomes that would scare any sane person back from the brink. The point was the same one that Democrats have been harping on since the faction of hard-line conservatives entered the House in January: a group of several dozen Republicans are “taking the economy hostage,” as House Democrat Rosa DeLauro put it, in order to fashion a Tea Party utopia.

These arguments are aimed more at the press and the public than the Tea Partyers whom Democrats are trying to persuade on the debt limit. From the beginning, the “Hell No” wing of the Republican Party — a mix of freshmen, anti-tax ideologues and members angling for Tea Party support in bids for higher office — has been intent on preserving purity at all costs. The brink is not just where they feel comfortable, it’s where their base lives. Take, for example, conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who not only embraces the Democratic metaphor that Republicans are economic hostage-takers, but decides to own it by arguing the GOP has to be willing to shoot the hostage.

As John Boehner probes for a deal that can pass the House — “a Rubix cube that we haven’t quite worked out yet,” Boehner admitted at a press conference Friday morning — one of his tasks is to tally the size and demands of the Hell No caucus. He can start here, with the 34 House Republicans who have signed the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge pushed by the Republican Study Committee, a group of hard-line conservatives. The pledge states that the “minimum necessary precondition” to raising the debt limit is substantial spending cuts, an enforceable cap on spending levels, and congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment. The RSC’s leader, Jim Jordan of Ohio, is one of the figureheads of the hard-line contingent; another is presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who said in her first campaign ad that she would vote no.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are working to bring a balanced-budget amendment to the floor in both chambers in the coming weeks; Cantor said Friday that the House would scrap its planned recess the week of July 18, in part to take that vote. “We’ve got a little over 30 of us that have signed the pledge that we won’t vote for it unless a balanced budget amendment passes both houses,” says House Republican Joe Walsh, a Tea Partyer from Illinois. “Short of that, they’ll lose a lot of us.”

It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many, particularly since rank-and-file members haven’t been presented with the details — or even the broad shape — of a proposed pact. For many, tax increases will be a deal-breaker. “There is no way the House of Representatives will support a tax increase,” Cantor said during a press conference Friday morning. But other Republicans say they are willing to generate revenue by closing loopholes and deductions — an idea Republicans often cast as a tax hike — if those moves are coupled with tax reform that simplifies the code and lowers personal and corporate rates. “A lot of us tea party freshman have been against these loopholes to begin with,” says Walsh. “Get rid of all that crap. Let’s simplify the code and lower taxes.”

“No matter the size of the cuts,” a House GOP aide says, “I have major doubts that any kind of revenue raises could pass the House.” Multiple Republican staffers suggest that Boehner faces as many, if not more, defections than the GOP did on the continuing resolution to keep the government running in April. Fifty-nine Republicans voted no on that deal; less than half of them were freshmen. Early on, Boehner called the debt-limit vote the first “adult moment” for the new GOP majority, but the Tea Party’s mantra has been that the vote represents their greatest point of leverage to force the kind of draconian cuts the conservative grassroots wants. The sentiment only deepened in the wake of the April budget deal. Some, like freshman Republican Jeff Landry, are ready to risk the dire consequences of default to make a point. “If I don’t get exactly what I want, I’m not voting for it,” Landry told Politico.

Faced with the prospect of losing up to 100 members, Boehner will have to assiduously court Democrats without exposing his right flank, particularly as Cantor, his No. 2, lurks over his shoulder. Democrats are laying down their own markers, vowing not to support a deal that includes cuts to benefits in entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, though several have expressed a willingness to discuss these cuts separately. “Because of the dogmatic, know-nothing wing that is willing to discard the interest of the country…at the altar of Norquist purism,” Connolly says, Boehner and Obama will ultimately find themselves needing a passel of Democrats to save a deal — likely more than the 81 Democrats who supported the CR in April. Connolly estimated some 100 Democrats would be required to thread the needle. “Triangulation isn’t going to work,” Connolly says. “You need the Democratic caucus to pass this. And so does John Boehner.”

Alex Altman is a Washington Correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.