Unless House Republicans want to trigger a civil war within their party, they must accompany any expansion of the debt limit with serious cuts in spending.
While the old, complacent GOP establishment would have gone along with a clean debt-limit bill, the new, fiery tea party folks won't have it.
Nor will America.
Most Americans do not want to see the debt limit raised at all. If it must be increased, they will insist that it be preceded by major cuts in government spending. Voters see the need to borrow more money as a symptom of a disease of overspending.
They are unwilling to sanction ongoing pain relievers to mitigate the impact of the illness without major progress toward a cure in the form of spending reductions. And a few minor cuts won't do.
House Republicans should demand that discretionary, non-defense spending be rolled back to 2008, pre-Obama levels and be frozen there for the next three budget cycles.
Since Obama has taken office, non-defense discretionary spending has risen by 41 percent. In just two years, it has soared! Only if this overspending is reined in and rolled back can the Republican House vote for a debt-limit increase.
Americans for Tax Reform (atr.org) is pushing a pledge for members of Congress to sign promising not to raise the debt limit without first effecting "significant" cuts in federal spending. A majority — an overwhelming majority — of the House Republican Conference is sure to sign the pledge, forcing the leadership's hand.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent the wrong signal when he called for Republicans to act like "adults" when it comes to dealing with the debt limit. If by that he means that they should go along with an expansion of the debt without big spending cuts, he is going to face reversal in his own caucus. And the debt-limit extension the GOP approves should be a very limited one.
President Obama needs to be kept on a short fiscal leash. The House should raise the limit by $500 billion — enough for three months — and then demand more concessions for a further increase. The next step should be to freeze Medicaid spending and block-grant it to the states.
The debt-limit increase is the first real confrontation between Obama and the new Republican House majority. It is a game of chicken the House must win.
In any such contest, the key, of course, is where public opinion is on the issue. Americans are so enamored of spending cuts that the Rasmussen Poll says that they even regard them as more important than balancing the federal budget by a margin of 57-34.
The longer Obama tries to hold the line against cuts in spending as he seeks a debt-limit increase, the more political damage he will suffer. The longer the crisis lasts, the more Republicans will gain.
When Obama's economic advisers — a greater group of schlemiels would be hard to find — warn that failure to raise the limit will trigger default and horrific consequences for the global economy, Republicans should reply that if this is so, tell it to your president and get him to approve the spending cuts along with the debt-limit increase.
Voters will clearly understand that the debt has been caused by overspending and that we must cut the outlays for our financial survival. The more Obama fights over this issue, the more he will lose, and the harder Republicans fight, the more they will gain.
But if Republican leaders turn squishy on the issue and "compromise" with Obama, abandoning real spending cuts, they will lose their mandate from the American people. The entire future of the Republican Party's 2012 effort to change America hangs in the balance.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann