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Cliff Drama Turns Page to Debt Ceiling

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
As Republicans, led by Boehner, clarified their position, Democrats doubled down on their stance that lawmakers shouldn’t continue to use the debt limit as a political tool.

Boehner and McConnell rebuffed Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner on Nov. 29 in separate meetings.

Tea party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Wednesday that permanently changing the debt limit procedure would be “a gross abdication of our constitutional authority.”

“It will pass over my dead, lifeless body,” Lee said.

Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., another conservative player, echoed Boehner when he indicated that the debt limit was the GOP’s strongest weapon in forcing further deficit reduction.

“I think we should use our leverage,” he said. “The only way for us to have a serious conversation about the debt ceiling is to deal with spending first.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman, an Office of Management and Budget director in the George W. Bush administration, planned to send a letter to Obama on Wednesday urging him to reconsider the administration’s proposed permanent changes to the debt limit procedure.

In the letter, the Ohio Republican used Obama’s 2006 vote as a senator against raising the debt ceiling as an example of why such votes have power in overall budget debates.

“For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation,” Portman wrote. “We also believe that Congress’s power over borrowing, like the power of the purse, is firmly rooted in our constitutional tradition.”

With the uptick in GOP messaging, Democrats are more concerned than ever about repeating their mistakes from the last lame duck in 2010, when they underestimated the GOP resolve to demand spending cuts equal to the amount of the debt limit hike.

It seems unlikely Democrats would be willing to trade on tax rates to secure an extension of the debt ceiling. But in one scenario Republicans have floated, they could gain leverage over Democrats if the GOP were to suddenly relent in the fight over the top tax rates and pass a bill to extending middle-class tax rates.

Rep. Sander M. Levin, ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said it would be best to deal with all tax and spending measures as a package that includes a debt limit increase, but that he wants Congress to act first and foremost on extending the 2001 and 2003 tax rates for middle-income Americans.

Even if that is off the table, the Michigan Democrat said, Democrats would have other leverage points, including extensions of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, the alternative minimum tax, and of course, the threat that a U.S. government default could be calamitous for the world economy.

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