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Hotline's Latest Edition / ON THE TRAIL

Preparing for a Debt Ceiling Hike

Republican House leaders have months to prepare for a tough vote on increasing the debt limit.

Rep. John Boehner.(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
December 9, 2010

Just a few months after they take control of the House, Republicans will face a dangerous moment, when a spark nears a tinderbox that could ignite a conflagration within the party—and with it, a new round of primary challenges that could threaten incumbents’ careers.

But that potentially explosive situation, the nearly annual, always painful raising of the national debt ceiling, has some potential upsides for Republican leadership, too.

Early preparation, already under way, offers Republicans the opportunity to use the vote to placate their base and start down the long path toward seriously curbing government spending.


Raising the debt ceiling, though, is not something that House Republicans will be able to avoid. If Congress refuses to raise the ceiling, the United States would default on loans, plunging the world economy into a deeper recession at the very moment it seems headed toward recovery, however slow and unsteady. Voting down an increase is simply not a viable option.

That doesn’t mean it’s a palatable option, especially for Republicans who just won an election by promising to be fiscally vigilant. The current ceiling stands at $14.3 trillion, after President Obama signed a bipartisan agreement in February. At that point, the national debt stood at $12.35 trillion, according to the Treasury Department. Today, the debt stands at $13.83 trillion, and aides on Capitol Hill expect Treasury to ask for an increase as early as April.

Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his Republican colleagues will take over the lower chamber in part because of a resurgent GOP base angry about excessive government spending. Many of the 87 newly elected Republicans have close ties to the tea party movement, and voting to allow trillions in new government spending would seem anathema to their mission in Washington.

“It’s a terrible message to the American taxpayer, that we’ve dug ourselves in such a hole that the only way out is to dig ourselves deeper. It’s a bad policy,” said newly elected Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who was elected on November 2 and has already been sworn in because he simultaneously won a special election to replace former GOP Rep. Mark Souder.

“We have to cut our way out of this problem. We can’t keep borrowing and spending our way out.”

Boehner has walked a tightrope between the Washington establishment and the tea party uprising, and if he and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., vote to raise the ceiling, it puts them square on the side of the D.C. establishment.

Raising the ceiling without clear concessions from the White House could lead to a fresh round of primary challenges, including against members of the GOP leadership.

Some Democrats wonder if they have to do anything at all, or if the Republican civil war will incite itself. Certainly, the party will use the vote to point out what it will characterize as Republican hypocrisy, raising debt limits to pay for massive tax cuts. And most agree it’s a rare Democratic opportunity they can see coming from miles away.

In his White House press conference on Tuesday, Obama seemed to acknowledge that the impending vote has painted Republicans in a corner.

“Nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse,” Obama said. “I think that there will be significant discussions about the debt limit vote. That’s something that nobody ever likes to vote on. But once John Boehner is sworn in as speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.”

Senior Republican Hill aides admit they will have to work on the freshman class to convince them of the importance of voting for the increase. And they’re not going to be surprised when April rolls around, sources on Capitol Hill said. As evidence, some Republicans discussed the possibility of making a debt ceiling increase a part of a deal on tax cut extensions announced this week, though the plan was ultimately deemed impossible.

Now, the GOP is contemplating ways to use the increase as leverage for their own ends. Senior aides said the GOP is already talking about what they want out of negotiations. The wish list might include coupling the increase with major budget reforms or massive spending cuts, the aides said.

“We’re going to come up with something that will meet our responsibilities and make progress,” said one top GOP aide. “It’s already been a topic of conversation.”

Achieving big concessions from Democrats would help Republicans mollify activists dead set against new spending. And in placating those activists, Republicans could pursue the path that is most advantageous to them politically—cutting spending—without indulging in other, less popular goals of the tea party movement, like repealing popular parts of the new health care law.

Democrats smell an opportunity to stoke a potentially damaging battle within the Republican Party. They should sense, too, that the GOP has the chance to begin serious negotiations on the debt ceiling in a much stronger position than Democrats anticipate. But Republicans will have to convince their base they’re getting the best possible deal. And given that the premise for a compromise will be allowing the federal government to spend more money, that’s not going to be an easy case to make.

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