Why Are Republicans Backing Off the Debt Ceiling? They Could Lose the House.

A government shutdown probably won't shake Republicans from their House majority. But a debt-limit crisis might.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) (L) answer questions from reporters November 3, 2010 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

In a normal political environment, the GOP's grip on the House is effectively unbreakable. Thanks to a congressional map disproportionately tilted in its favor, the party holds only 17 districts that President Obama won last year. In fact, Republicans were strongly positioned to add to their 17-seat majority during next year's midterms: The Cook Political Report lists nine Democratic incumbents who represent toss-up districts. Republicans have only two. But failing to raise the debt limit, a scenario financial experts warn will cause a default on the country's debts and worldwide economic panic, would make 2014 anything but a normal political year. And even as House Republicans contemplate a six-week debt-limit extension, both sides remain far apart on a long-term deal, meaning the threat of default is unlikely to abate any time soon.

Few Democrats or Republicans believe the government shutdown will hand Democrats control of the House, but a default is different. GOP operatives warn it's the kind of politics-changing event that would threaten even the most hardened of majorities. "Any party who thinks their majority is bulletproof is bound to find out that is not the case," said one GOP consultant with ties to the business community, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

The risk to Republicans hinges on two eventualities: The repercussions of a debt-limit crisis are severe, and Republicans receive most of the blame. On the former, there's widespread agreement: Allowing the United States to default on its obligations would be catastrophic. The consequences would be far more disastrous than a government shutdown, which, while damaging, doesn't threaten to send interest rates skyrocketing or 401(k) plans plummeting. "In the midst of this fiscal challenge, the ongoing political uncertainty over the budget and the debt ceiling does not help," said Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. "The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse, and could very seriously damage not only the U.S. economy, but the entire global economy."

Whether Republicans would receive the bulk of the blame is not certain, of course, but it looks like a good bet. A spate of recent polls about the shutdown suggest that not only do more people blame the GOP than the Democrats for government dysfunction, they're also growing increasingly frustrated with the party. The public's approval of Obama's role in the shutdown standoff has actually risen, from 41 percent to 45 percent, according to one ABC News/Washington Post survey taken in late September and another one in early October. Meanwhile, in the October poll, 70 percent of adults said they disapprove of congressional Republicans' conduct during the negotiations, including 51 percent who said they strongly disapprove. That's a 7-point jump from the previous survey. Similarly, a Gallup Poll released Wednesday showed the Republican Party's approval rating sinking to a record low of 28 percent, down from 38 percent in September.

The politics of the shutdown aren't a perfect match for the debt ceiling's — for one thing, polls show most Americans oppose the kind of "clean" debt-limit increase Democrats have demanded. But Republicans know the public has blamed them for these fights before, and if the ceiling is breached, party leaders are bracing for more backlash. As one Republican strategist said, it's the "lighter fluid" that could set off a political inferno next year. "If we're still talking about this in January and February "¦ then I will believe this was the kind of catastrophic event that started the downward spiral," the insider said.

Not all Republicans share that fear. Some argue that if default occurs, the fallout will be just as bad or worse for congressional Democrats and Obama. The president is in charge, and he has yet to avert a crisis. People blamed the Great Depression on Herbert Hoover, didn't they? "It would have massive repercussions in both party's elections, but I also think we've got to get back to understanding that the Republican argument is, "˜Obama won't negotiate,' " said Guy Harrison, a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I don't think that's a good place for him to be."

A single event, even one as consequential as defaulting on the debt, is never guaranteed to make or break a majority more than a year before an election. But holding onto the House in 2014 shouldn't be the GOP's only concern. A default could thwart the party from winning a Senate majority, and House Democrats could still make significant, if not majority-making, gains. That alone would be noteworthy because midterms historically favor the party that doesn't control the White House, and a strong 2014 showing would position the Democrats to retake the chamber during the 2016 races.But the bigger, long-term problem is the effect the dual crises of a shutdown and default would have on the Republican Party's image, which only nine months ago almost everyone in the GOP agreed needed a major makeover. The twin disasters would reinforce the public's worst perceptions of the party: It's extremist, obstructionist, and incapable of governing. "What are the Republicans' strengths going to be?" asked the GOP operative with ties to the business community. "Perception is, Republicans understand the free market, so if we take a hit on the debt ceiling, that obviously undercuts that narrative."

Losing the House majority is bad enough. But another White House defeat in 2016 is a nightmare no Republican wants to face.