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Roll Call

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.

Conservative GOP leaders in both chambers are brandishing the threat of a potential partial government shutdown to force deep spending cuts in a new round of negotiations on the debt limit and other major budget questions coming up in Congress.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas took on the leader Friday by saying that Republicans frustrated with spending would take a tough line on the prospect of raising the debt limit, a March 1 deadline for automatic spending cuts under the 2011 debt deal (PL 112-25) and the March 27 expiration of the continuing resolution (PL 112-175).

“It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy and Spain,” Cornyn wrote in a column published in the Houston Chronicle on Friday.

The president “needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately,” Cornyn wrote, adding he was concerned that President Barack Obama had “already signaled an unwillingness to negotiate over the debt ceiling.”

“This is unacceptable. The president should immediately put forward a plan that addresses these deadlines, and he should launch serious, transparent budget negotiations,” Cornyn said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada dismissed the threatened shutdown, and nodded to his own background as an amateur boxer to swipe at the Republicans. “Cornyn better be careful,” Reid told reporters. “That’s stupid. He’s training for a fight he’s going to lose.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., added that “risking government shutdown, risking not raising the debt ceiling, is playing with fire.” Choosing to use the debt limit as political leverage over spending would make the GOP responsible for a default, he said, adding that “I would bet that they would not go forward with that.”

Cornyn’s call is being echoed by conservative leaders in both chambers, such as Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Republican Senate Steering Committee. And House Speaker John A. Boehner told Republicans at a closed-door meeting of GOP lawmakers Friday that he will continue to demand spending cuts greater than the amount needed to raise the debt ceiling, pivoting from an ugly tax episode to more friendly GOP territory.

“With the cliff behind us, the focus turns to spending,” Boehner said. He pointed to the results of a new GOP poll showing 72 percent of Americans agree the debt ceiling increase must be accompanied by spending cuts of a greater amount.

Ceiling Follows Cliff

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.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee insisted that Cornyn’s threat was not a position that he and some other Republicans shared. “Rather than saying what we won’t do with each other over the next two months,” said Alexander, “I’d rather emphasize what we will do. What we should do, with president taking the lead, is to identify a way to deal with the subject nobody wants to deal talk about, which is the growth of entitlement spending.”

David Harrison contributed to this report.

Corrects to attribute quote from Rep. Lucas.

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