How deep is GOP fracture on debt ceiling? Cracks appearing in tea party, too.

Rep. Raúl Labrador, who has a 98 percent rating from the Club for Growth, on Wednesday spoke the unspeakable. Give up the fight on the debt ceiling – it’s one Republicans can’t win.

Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman/AP/File
Idaho 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador speaks in 2012. 'I don’t want us to just claim we’re fighting for something and then capitulate in the end,' the congressman said Weds., 'the American people are tired of that game.'

Cracks in the tea pot? House Republicans can’t agree on how to handle the debt ceiling, and that, apparently, also goes for tea party conservatives – usually a pretty united bunch when it comes to red-ink issues.

But on Wednesday, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho spoke the unspeakable. Give up the fight on the debt ceiling – it’s one Republicans can’t win, said the congressman with a 98 percent rating from Club for Growth. “I don’t want us to just claim we’re fighting for something and then capitulate in the end,” he said. “The American people are tired of that game.”

What? No battle to the death over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which must be increased by the end of the month or the US risks default? In 2011, Republicans extracted a pound of flesh – i.e. $1 trillion in budget cuts, known as the “sequester” – in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, a routine matter in the past.

They played hardball again in September, resulting in a partial government shutdown over the president’s Affordable Care Act – a move that angered many Americans and caused a sharp drop in Republican approval ratings.

Mr. Labrador’s alternative this time? Let Senate Democrats pass a “clean,” no-strings-attached increase in the debt limit – and take the blame for lack of fiscal restraint. “I’m just being realistic,” he concluded.

It is a realism that has split the tea party in two high-profile votes – a bipartisan budget agreement last December and the omnibus spending bill in January.

The outspoken Labrador was defending his idea at a monthly “conversations with conservatives” media hour in a Capitol Hill hearing room, where the odor of fried fast-food takeout seemed to confirm the “everyman” credentials of the speakers.

Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas wasn’t buying Labrador’s strategy, however. “I understand the pragmatic approach,” he politely said. But “a clean debt ceiling I think is capitulation, and I didn’t get elected by the Sixth District of Texas to come here to Washington and capitulate.”

Surely, he posited in his clear, steady voice, as a price for supporting a debt-ceiling increase, Republicans can come up with a set of budget or entitlement reforms that Americans and even some Democrats and the president can support – budget caps, perhaps, or a change in the way Social Security inflation adjustments are figured.

Easier said than done. It is precisely the shape of such a package that is confounding House Republican leaders as they try to decide how to respond to the looming debt-limit deadline without pitching the country into a default crisis.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas offered another perspective on the fight for principles. Conservatives are frustrated that the Republican leadership walked with them through the shutdown, and then walked away. After it was over, House Speaker John Boehner blasted outside tea party groups for pushing a disastrous strategy, which he has said he never agreed with. That’s “dispiriting,” Mr. Huelskamp said.

No quibble from Labrador on that one. He was part of a failed attempt to oust the speaker in 2013 and says the House GOP needs bold, visionary leaders. Indeed, he told the publication “CQ Roll Call” that Mr. Boehner should lose his speakership if he pursues immigration reform this year.

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