The Obama administration is wading into enemy territory Thursday as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner heads to the Hill to address the GOP House freshmen -- the driving force behind Republican opposition to a straight debt limit increase.
Geithner's appearance is another sign that the White House, which hosted the Republican Conference on Wednesday, wants to get moving toward a deal. A symbolic vote Tuesday night on a "clean" debt ceiling increase failed, clearing the way for serious negotiations.
The freshmen, who said they were disappointed by President Barack Obama's remarks at the White House on Wednesday, are even more skeptical of Geithner, who animates so much of their distaste for the president's economic policies.
If Geithner wants to win them over, he must clear a high hurdle. Freshmen said he has been warning of an impending debt ceiling deadline for months, issuing at least four dates by which the debt ceiling needed to be raised. Two of those deadlines have since passed. The next, just before the House takes its August recess, raised some eyebrows in the conference.
"He pushed it to the day before we go to recess. If you can't see a political thing there, "Oh, we happen to be OK until just before we go away,'" Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said Wednesday. "It makes me wonder if that's a real date."
Other members of the deeply conservative class described the suspicion the date changes have engendered with the freshmen.
"We all have to be mindful that there is somewhat of a Chicken Little aura about Secretary Geithner. If he's going to describe economic catastrophes in specific dates, then he needs to be accurate when he does that," says freshman Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama. "When we keep hearing these "the world is coming to an end' deadlines, then those deadlines come and pass without the projected economic catastrophe, it really weakens his veracity, which in turn may embolden people who think that Geithner is not accurately projecting the economic consequences of not raising the debt ceiling."
Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, a freshman on the Budget Committee, had another children's tale reference to describe how some in his class view the secretary.
"There's a story I heard when I was a little kid about a little boy who cried wolf," he said. "It seems to ring true in this conversation. At some point, you've cried wolf too many times. The reality is in that story, the wolf does come someday, but we don't know when to trust you."
This isn't Geithner's first trip to the Hill. He's spoken in private sessions with several House committees, including Ways and Means and Rules, shoring up critical support among Republicans for the difficult task he faces selling the conservative members on the importance of raising the debt limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion. California Rep. David Dreier, who chairs the Rules panel, said Geithner told him he has "no choice but to be honest" about when the debt ceiling will be reached.
A Treasury official said House Republicans asked Geithner to come to Capitol Hill. When the department asked to include Democrats, the GOP agreed. Geithner has met with freshmen before, the official said, but Thursday marks the "first dedicated session with this group." Their outreach on the debt limit began with congressional leadership and committees, and they plan to "continue to provide Congress with the information they need to avoid default."
"We see this as a constructive opportunity," the official said. "The secretary is there to provide the facts."
"When you deal with a threat of a government shutdown, and you know when a continuing resolution expires, there is a date certain there," Dreier told reporters Wednesday. "I can sympathize with the fact that this is rather amorphous."
Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble, a freshman invited by leadership to address the meeting yesterday, said the president and his treasury secretary seemed receptive to his small-business-owner perspective on enhancing revenue and cutting expenses.
"I don't think the secretary is being disingenuous. There is a hard date that we hit the statutory debt limit. It means we have to manage cash flow," Ribble said. "He said Aug. 2 is the day Treasury will run out of cash, and he has been pretty consistent on that date."
Brooks, a former economics student, said he thought his freshman colleagues understood the immediate economic consequences of not raising the debt ceiling. "But that's not the issue," he said. "The issue is one of comparison. Is it better to take this rather severe medicine now, with its adverse effects now, or is it better to raise the debt ceiling today, put it off into the future and then, in the future, face perhaps an even worse catastrophe if the federal government goes bankrupt."
Comments from some of his colleagues indicate that Geithner will face an uphill battle in persuading some of the freshmen. "I want to ask him [about] his comment a couple of weeks ago that the creditworthiness of the United States is at risk if we don't raise the debt ceiling," Louisiana Rep. Jeff Landry said. "With every banker that I've visited when I was in business, that would be an oxymoron, and so I want him to clarify it."
Lankford said Republicans need to hear Geithner's Plan B if the debt ceiling isn't increased. He and other Republicans said they're worried the administration doesn't have one.
The rookie lawmakers indicated that there were a number of things they were looking to hear tomorrow, including a proposal to tackle the debt that the CBO can score; the tax reform ideas mentioned by the president in his State of the Union address; and the short-, medium- and long-term proposal to bring down the debt.
Rep. Nan Hayworth of New York said she and her colleagues would make it clear that "the secretary needs to exert all the pressure that he can within the administration to make clear to them that this isn't going to happen" without major spending cuts.
"They simply have no plan, and I presume Geithner will say the same old things, that the world is going to end. Where I come from, we're looking for solutions. I don't think they have one," said Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative freshman on the Budget Committee.