Within the House Republican Conference, an unofficial "tough vote" caucus is taking shape.
Its members are the ones who tend to cast the unpleasant, politically painful, bite-the-bullet votes — like this week's debt ceiling vote. Other fiscal votes that fit the pattern include last year's fiscal cliff deal or the vote to end last year's partial government shutdown.
The numbers in the tough vote caucus vary slightly from bill to bill, but the core contingent is fairly small in size: Just 28 House Republicans, for example, voted with nearly all the Democrats — 193 of them —to raise the debt ceiling.
The ranks of the tough vote caucus include more than a few retiring members who don't have to worry about the political repercussions of their actions. But there are also members who will have to face primary or general election voters again.
These members know they're going to catch it from hard-liners and other fiscal hawks who say they'd rather take the risk of the nation defaulting on its obligations than increase the statutory debt ceiling. For some, their vote could mean a Tea Party-backed challenge.
A senior House Republican aide explained to me that those in the GOP's tough vote caucus know they make it possible for their fellow Republicans to vote in opposition to various must-pass measures like the debt ceiling hike — thus allowing their colleagues to tout to voters how stingy they are on fiscal issues.
"It's such a good vote for all these Republicans who vote against it, knowing that it's going to pass, knowing that all they need is small group of Republicans to make sure that they vote for it so that it will pass. Because none of these people want to vote against raising the debt ceiling and then actually blow through the debt ceiling and then be on record supporting that course of action.
"So all these Republicans can vote against raising the debt ceiling ... and then they go back to their districts, back to their conservative constituencies and say, 'Look, I stood up. I was against raising the debt ceiling. I stood on my principles, blah, blah, blah.' So it just comes to the question of who is in this small group of Republicans that is willing to walk the plank on this?
"This is a tough vote for my boss because he's going to go home and hear it from his conservative constituents," said the aide, who works for one of the plank walkers.
The list of those voting to raise the debt ceiling included House GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. Committee chairmen Darrell Issa, Ed Royce and Howard "Buck" McKeon, all from California, and Dave Camp of Michigan, were also yes votes.
At least four were members who have announced their retirements at the end of this year: McKeon, Howard Coble of North Carolina, Gary Miller of California and Richard "Doc" Hastings of Washington state.
With few exceptions, the House Republicans who voted yes were from states President Obama won in 2012.
Members of the center-right Republican Main Street Partnership, like freshman David Valadao, who represents a competitive Central California district, and Dave Reichert, of suburban Seattle, were also among the 28 Republicans — three more than were needed — who added their votes to get the debt bill to the 218 votes. The measure passed the Senate Wednesday and went on to the president's desk.
One thing these members had in common is that none of them felt the immediate pressure of a competitive Tea Party challenger. "For somebody who is facing a strong primary challenge from a Tea Party-type candidate, yeah, this would've been a very tough vote to take," the GOP aide said.