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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?”
House and Senate GOP aides acknowledged the debt-limit issue will be a tricky one for them to navigate come next year, but they predicted they will be able to turn their own party’s turmoil into a partisan fight with the White House.
“It will probably fall into a spending fight, which probably plays better for us than the Democrats,” one senior Senate Republican aide said.
But Republicans also acknowledged they have no idea at this point whether their tea party brethren — some of whom have been itching for a government shutdown — can be “bought” with promises of future spending cuts.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the looming debt limit shows the need to cut spending now.
“This is another example of why we should immediately enact the ‘Pledge to America,’” Steel said, referring to the new House GOP agenda. “Reducing spending to pre-bailout, pre-‘stimulus’ levels will save $100 billion in the first year alone.”
A senior House Democratic aide predicted trouble for GOP leaders on debt and spending issues.
“In my view, the chickens will come home to roost, they will reap what they’ve sown, pick your metaphor,” the aide said. “Boehner and Cantor are cultivating this crazy fringe in their party and they are going to have to deal with it, or not be able to — the latter being the more likely scenario as Boehner doesn’t even control his conference now.”
Another Democratic aide likened the looming debt-limit vote to the TARP Wall Street bailout vote, which House Republican leaders backed only to face a revolt from their rank and file on the House floor.
Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the debt-limit hike and a fight over an omnibus spending bill both present the potential for government shutdowns early next year.
If Democrats are unable to pass an omnibus spending bill or a yearlong continuing resolution during the lame-duck session to keep the government running, any short-term solution pushing decisions on this year’s spending to the next Congress would put the shutdown issue front-and-center at the start of the year.
Hensarling said Republicans have no desire for a government shutdown and added that it would be Obama’s fault if he vetoed bills cutting spending.
Hensarling has also proposed an “automatic CR” that would keep the government running in the event Congress fails to pass its spending bills to avoid government shutdowns.
“I don’t think either side should be exploiting this,” he said of the shutdown threat.
Van de Water said the conventional wisdom is that Republicans lost out on the 1995-96 government shutdown and that experience scared people away from using that tactic since.
“It’s 15 years later and memories have dimmed, and we may face that situation once more,” Van de Water said. “How far is each side willing to go to insist on what it thinks is necessary, and who is going to get the blame when the parks ... and Social Security offices close down?”