As the Debt Debate Shifts, Tea Partyers Plan to Hold Their Ground

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As word broke that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner may be nearing a deal that would raise the debt limit while cutting $3.5 trillion over the next decade, a large group of Republicans were serving notice that the pact likely won’t be enough to mollify the party’s conservative wing. A bicameral cadre of some 20 GOP lawmakers streamed into a studio on the third floor of the Senate, spilling into the periphery of the audience, to tout the Cut, Cap and Balance proposal that Democratic leader Harry Reid says doesn’t have “one chance in a million” of passing the Senate on Saturday. And many of them seemed prepared to go down along with it.

The Republican line is that Cut, Cap and Balance is the only plan that’s been committed to paper, the only one with a shot at passing the House (which it did, with five Democratic defections, on Tuesday night) by the Aug. 2 deadline and the only one that imposes the structural spending reforms the GOP insists must be included in a deal to elude fiscal disaster. “This is not just the best plan. This is the only plan,” said Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party favorite.

But it is not a viable one. Nor is the only plan, even if it’s the only legislation that’s been formally drafted. The faint outlines of the pact Obama and Boehner are reportedly working toward — aides to both men dispute the characterization that a deal is close — look favorable to Republicans: no revenue increases in the deal’s first tranche, no end to the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, and cuts to beneficiaries of entitlement programs, which will enrage progressive Democrats. And yet, judging from the stridency of the rhetoric on display, Boehner will struggle to coax his Hell No Caucus into backing even a plum deal.

Conservative House Republicans are insisting that a deal to raise the U.S. borrowing authority contain the three components of Cut, Cap and Balance: deep and immediate spending cuts (the Republican bill slashes $111 billion in the 2012 fiscal year), structural controls to prevent profligacy in the future, and a constitutional balanced-budget amendment. Several Republicans, including House Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Jordan, said they were leery of a deal hashed out behind closed doors, and wouldn’t be fooled into accepting amorphous promises that would be fulfilled in the future. “This is Congress making a promise to you,” Jordan said, with evident contempt for the concept.

“There are enough folks here who still don’t trust Congress to do what they say,” House freshman Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina told TIME after the meeting. “I’m not willing to trade an immediate increase in the debt ceiling now for spending cuts later.” As Jay reports, the revived grand bargain — rumors of which Boehner called “false” on Twitter — would require a major second step, an overhaul that would broaden the base and lower the rates of the U.S. tax code, a heavy lift that would presumably take months to accomplish. The leap of faith required to cajole Tea Partyers into signing on might be too much.

Boehner is trying. Asked on Thursday morning if he has advised his members that a compromise will be necessary, he replied, “I have.” The problem is that House Republicans believe they’ve compromised enough already. “This is the compromise,” Jordan said. Republicans say they’ve that by swallowing a debt-limit increase that’s anathema to some constituents and softening the statutes of a bill that remains extremely conservative, they’ve done enough. “We changed the language we wanted originally to move it a little more to the middle to attract votes,” says Mulvaney. Even so, just five Democrats signed on. Acknowledging that a chunk of his conference would rather face the consequences of negotiating beyond Aug. 2 than capitulate, Boehner said, “I’m sure we’ve got some members who believe that. I do not believe that is anywhere close to a majority.”

Obama has his own problems. The White House faces a backlash from Congressional Democrats, who would struggle to accept cuts to Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries that their leaders have ruled out, and which would force them to relinquish their chief political cudgel against Republicans in the coming elections. Even so, the primary obstacle remains House Republicans, who have been waiting for the moment to prove that they are prepared to back up their rhetoric. Illinois Tea Partyer Joe Walsh, who has been circulating a letter inveighing against the McConnell fallback plan, stood on stage, a white “Cut, Cap and Balance” button pinned to his lapel, as Senate Republicans like Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham praised their House counterparts. When it was his turn to speak, Walsh invoked the “tide of history.” He and his fellow freshmen seem certain they are on the right side. Their leader may be ready to abandon them there.

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.