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Cornyn, Conservatives Say Partial Government Shutdown Possible in Debt Standoff

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Cornyn said Friday that Republicans frustrated with spending would take a tough line on the prospect of raising the debt limit.

The push for tougher tactics has emerged as Republicans have tried to fend off attacks from conservative constituent groups for not doing more to block or unravel the fiscal agreement that cleared the House, 257-167, on Jan 1. Two-thirds of the GOP conference opposed that measure. Opponents cited their deep concerns about the lack of spending cuts and higher taxes for high-income taxpayers contained in the deal.

Scalise said Friday that a partial shutdown of the government might be inevitable given resistance from the White House and Democrats to deep cuts in entitlements and a broad range of government programs.

“We want President Obama to understand that America has a spending problem. And clearly, he doesn’t get it yet,” Scalise said. “We’re going to fight to get control over spending. President Obama is either going to come with us on that, or he’s going to continue to ignore it.”

Toomey has been one of the architects of the potential strategy for forcing a partial shutdown of the government, saying the Treasury Department could prioritize payments to bondholders to ensure there is no default on the federal debt. He said on MSNBC on Wednesday that a “temporary disruption” of some government services could shutter operations such as the Department of Education and national parks.

The legal authority to ignore or prioritize debt payments is unclear, and Treasury Department officials stressed Friday the department cannot go beyond the current “extraordinary measures” Treasury already is using to forestall the reckoning until the end of February.

“The debt limit is one set of issues that first of all involves obligations that have already been made in the past on the part of Congress,” said Jan Eberly, assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy. “These are spending commitments that Congress has already passed, and honoring those obligations is the responsibility of Congress in raising the debt ceiling.”

The continuing resolution, Eberly said, “is really a separate issue and that should be kept distinct from the debt ceiling. The president has been very clear he’s not going to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling.”

Obama has ruled out invoking constitutional authority to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, although some Democrats say that is exactly what he should do. “I would do it in a second,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday.

Pelosi suggested Democrats will have leverage in a debt ceiling standoff because Republicans have been unable to unify on major spending bills. A series of big-ticket bills passed during the 112th Congress with the help of Democratic votes.

Although some of the conservative leaders argued they would accept a partial government shutdown to maintain leverage in negotiations, other Republicans questioned the revival of tough tactics last used during the government shutdown crisis in late 1995 and early 1996, during the 103rd Congress.

“I was here during the last government shutdown. Those were not productive experiences,” said Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla.

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