Will the Debt Ceiling Split Senate Republicans?

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Tea partier Jim DeMint could block GOP leaders' backup plan to raise the limit

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Since the 2010 election cycle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has had to watch his right flank. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has been cultivating a conservative wing among Senate Republicans, and a major storyline in Washington Republican politics has become DeMint's growing influence in the party, both as a parliamentarian and as a campaigner for conservative primary candidates.

The debt limit has again put DeMint at the center of Senate proceedings. He's promised to do everything he can to stop the plan offered by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to allow President Obama to raise the debt limit without congressional consent.

If he wanted to, DeMint could bring the U.S. Treasury to the brink of default, if no plan meets his satisfaction. By objecting to a vote and creating a series of procedural impediments, DeMint could stall a debt-limit increase for three weeks, according to one Democratic Senate aide, if the Senate passes a ceiling hike, the House changes it, and the Senate needs to vote again. That's not to say he'd be willing, in the end, to force a federal default.

What will the debt ceiling mean for Senate Republican politics? Do DeMint's protestations indicate a wedge between newly elected conservative senators and the Republican leadership?

We won't know until a final Reid-McConnell proposal emerges as a bill, and until Republicans vote on it. But some Republicans have privately expressed frustrations with McConnell's handling of the debt-ceiling vote, according to one GOP aide. They asked for a debt-ceiling proposal months ago, and, now that McConnell has presented one, some GOP senators don't like it. After McConnell pitched his plan to the Republican caucus last week, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) didn't sound too happy after a Thursday meeting:

"Basically, most senators in this body are nothing but two-bit pawns -- two-bit pawns -- as a political fight is under way, basically, to lay out the groundwork, if you will, for 2012 election," Corker said. "I mean, that's what's really happening now in this body, and I think we all know that."

If the Reid-McConnell plan passes, it will need significant Democratic support. The plan does not have the backing of conservative House Republicans, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. It will need Democratic votes to make it to Obama's desk. And if the plan is tailored to win votes from Democrats, conservative Republicans won't like it.

Republicans could be swayed against supporting the Reid-McConnell plan by the looming cadre of conservative interest groups that fueled primary challengers to more established GOP candidates in races across the country during the 2010 election cycle.

Out of 47 Republican senators, 12 have signed the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" pledge requiring significant cuts and congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. The Club for Growth, which supported Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a signer of the pledge, in his upset primary win over then-senator Bob Bennett in 2010, will score lawmakers' votes against the pledge.

The final voting on a debt-limit increase could take many shapes, but it looks like it will require some maneuvering -- amendment votes on a balanced-budget amendment or a package of deeper cuts, for instance -- to allow GOP senators to vent some of their frustrations with the end result and protect themselves from conservative challenges in 2012.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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