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Under Romney or Obama, GOP Still Balks at Debt Limit Increase

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Even if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, conservatives will likely fight against raising the debt limit, which could put him in a tough position in the first days of his administration.

If GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins the White House, he is likely to face as much of a challenge as President Barack Obama did in persuading conservative Republicans to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a government default.

The Treasury Department reiterated earlier this week that the government will hit its current debt limit before the end of the year but can use the same “extraordinary measures” it employed in the protracted debt ceiling fight in 2011 to postpone potential default until early next year. With some House Republicans resisting a push to deal with the debt limit during the lame-duck session, the window for action will be small for whoever is inaugurated
Jan. 20.

Despite being the leader of his party, a President Romney could face just as much resistance from House conservatives as did Obama two summers ago.

“Frankly, I don’t see any scenario under which House Republicans agree to raise the debt ceiling in the lame duck, for the very reason that there haven’t been more cuts since the last time the debt ceiling was raised,” one top conservative Republican aide said. “After we’re out of a lame-duck and we’re in a Romney presidency, maybe tempers cool a little bit, but I think you still see a similar dynamic: Where are the cuts?”

And there still appear to be plenty of GOP members who may be willing to risk default to secure large cuts in government spending. 

“There were enough who didn’t believe we’d default last time. They won’t believe it this time,” the aide added.

Even if Romney champions the spending cuts conservatives are likely to propose, he could hit a wall with Senate Democrats who are likely to either keep their majority in that chamber or retain enough seats to filibuster any GOP plans. That could put Romney in the difficult situation of needing to avoid a default that could be catastrophic to the world economy without the political support from his own party to do it.

To date, the debt ceiling has been the least-talked-about piece of the fiscal cliff — a series of budgetary events set to affect the government at the beginning of 2013. They include the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and the $1.2 trillion mandatory, across-the-board cuts included in the first debt limit deal.

Though Romney has said little about the debt limit during the general election campaign, he was asked about it during the GOP presidential primary, which was hitting its stride at the height of the first debt ceiling debacle. During those debates, Romney supported the conservative “cut, cap and balance” plan championed by the House Republican Study Committee and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

“The answer for the country is for the president to agree to cut federal spending and cap federal spending and put into place a balanced budget amendment,” Romney said in July 2011. “That, for me, is the line in the sand. ... It is within the president’s power to say to the leadership in the House and the Senate that ‘I’ll cut spending. I’ll cap the amount of spending, and I’ll pursue a balanced budget amendment,’ and if the president were to do that, this whole debt limit problem goes away.”

In one of his campaign’s more awkward moments, Romney has since publicly maligned the debt limit deal — known as the Budget Control Act — which his running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), supported. He has not clearly outlined what he would have done in place of the act, and Democrats have challenged his deficit reduction plan for being light on details.

The Romney campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on where the candidate now stands on the issue and whether Romney would push for cuts commensurate with the level of the debt ceiling, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had pushed on behalf of his conference in 2011.

Though Romney has strong allies on the Hill — for example, budget wonk Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — some sources speculated he still could struggle to convince conservatives to trust him, particularly if he needs them to raise the debt ceiling in the first few days of his administration. 

When asked if members would trust Romney to work on spending cuts after they raised the debt ceiling, one Senate GOP aide said, “I don’t think anyone will.” 

“Maybe the Paul Ryan aspect brings him a little more credibility to Congress,” the aide continued, before noting that conservatives still are skeptical of Ryan’s votes on the budget deal and 2008 Wall Street bailout.

Sources of both parties in the Senate and the House concede that no matter who wins, raising the debt ceiling might be a tricky proposition, and almost all warned that it is difficult to game out a legislative strategy without knowing for sure who will be in the White House or to a lesser extent, in control of the Senate.

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