The campaign rhetoric of tea-party-inspired Republicans is on a collision course with the federal debt limit, which could make the threat of a government shutdown an early order of business in a new Republican majority.
Republican candidates across the country are attacking Democrats for growth in government spending — specifically, their votes earlier this year to raise the debt limit to $14.3 trillion.
But with the deficit running over $100 billion a month and the national debt already above $13.6 trillion, Treasury Department officials predicted earlier this month that they would need Congress to raise the debt limit again in the first or second quarter of 2011. A failure to raise the debt limit could result in a government shutdown, because the government could not borrow more money to operate.
But it will be difficult for many Republicans to vote to increase the debt ceiling, given that no current House or Senate Republicans supported the increase this year and Republican candidates are attacking Democrats who voted for it.
In Colorado’s 7th Congressional district, for example, GOP nominee Ryan Frazier began running an ad in early October accusing Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter of voting “for a spending bill that helped send jobs overseas, an energy tax that would cost American jobs, and he increased the national debt limit to over $14 trillion.”
Other Republicans, such as Georgia state Rep. Austin Scott, who is challenging Rep. Jim Marshall (D), and Wisconsin state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who is challenging Rep. Ron Kind (D), have gone so far as to vow to oppose future increases in the debt limit.
But it’s not just individual candidates. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running ads against several Democrats denouncing their debt-limit votes.
GOP leaders have tried several times this fall to tamp down talk of a government shutdown, with Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) telling the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think a shutdown was necessary and adding that the GOP doesn’t want to be seen as a bunch of “yahoos.”
But some of the party’s candidates and a few conservative lawmakers have kept the threat of a shutdown on the table as a bargaining chip to press President Barack Obama on issues such as repealing the health care law and cutting federal spending.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), one of the most conservative House Republicans on fiscal issues, said their course could be guided in part by what Obama decides to do after the elections. “I’m hopeful that he might belatedly come to the conclusion that his spending is part of our economic recovery problem,” he said. But, “unless there is a meeting of the minds there will be a butting of the heads ... Republicans will not sit idly by.”
As he noted, “Ultimately, the president can’t spend money unless Congress approves it.”
Hensarling acknowledged that the need for a debt-limit hike could be one opportunity to put the brakes on spending. Before supporting an increase, Hensarling said he “would have to see a path to fiscal sustainability. Are we putting the federal budget on a glide path where it doesn’t exceed the family budget’s level ... an eventual path to balance?”
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