Stuck in the Middle

Only the GOP’s ‘Short Straw’ Caucus Can Raise the Debt Ceiling

Who will be the five Republican senators brave enough to join Democrats to beat Ted Cruz and avoid default?

Which five Republican senators will bite the bullet Wednesday?

With Ted Cruz using procedural measures to try force a 60-vote threshold for the Senate to approve the increase in the debt ceiling approved by the House Tuesday, it is likely that at least five Republicans will have to join with all 55 Democrats in the Senate to raise the debt limit. But the vote, unlike the fight over the government shutdown in October 2013, will reveal an entirely new split with the already divided GOP

The conflict within the Republican Party has often been depicted as a struggle between “the reality caucus” and “the suicide caucus.” In other words, a fight between pragmatists who are more than willing to settle for a compromise, and those whose approach to politics is all or nothing. But the divide in Tuesday’s vote in the House on a “clean” debt ceiling extension was far different. Instead, many from both wings of the party joined together to oppose raising the debt ceiling. So who voted to raise the debt ceiling? It was those who can only be dubbed “the draw the short straw caucus.”

The 28 House Republicans who voted for a clean debt ceiling increase were those who felt they could risk taking a politically problematic vote with GOP primaries approaching or those who simply didn’t care. They included the three most senior members of House GOP leadership, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy as well as powerful committee chairs like Darrell Issa of Oversight and Government Reform and Hal Rogers of Appropriations.

They also included many of the Republicans who have more to fear in a general election than a primary. There are mostly moderates from swing districts like Rep. Michael Grimm of New York City and Rep. Gary Miller of heavily Hispanic San Bernardino County, California. Finally, they included those like Howard Coble and Frank Wolf who did not have a shred of fear over the electoral consequences because they are retiring.

The opponents included just about every other Republican in the House. This was a group that ranged from bomb-throwers like Louie Gohmert (R-TX); Boehner allies facing primaries like Pete Sessions and Mike Simpson; members with potential ambitions for higher office like Tom Cotton, presumptive GOP nominee for Senate in his home state and Paul Ryan.

Within these parameters, it leaves only a handful of GOP senators available to draw the short straw. While John McCain has long disapproved of House tactics on the debt ceiling he told reporters Wednesday he will not vote for cloture. McCain's close friend and longtime ally Lindsey Graham has been opposed to a clean debt ceiling increase. Not coincidentally, Graham faces a contested Republican primary for his Senate seat in South Carolina this year. The usual GOP suspects will likely break ranks with their party and allow the debt ceiling to be raised and let the Senate get out of the D.C. before the Thursday’s snow storm. Moderates like Mark Kirk and Lisa Murkowski will likely yet again break ranks and crisis will be averted. But just, as the debt ceiling passed the House with only three votes to spare, it’s likely that the Senate bill will not get much more than the bare minimum 60 votes. After all, why would you willingly draw a short straw?