- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2010

For the first time in years, House lawmakers will soon have the chance to vote on a standalone measure to increase the federal debt limit next year under the new Republican majority — a vote that’s shaping up as the first early test of the GOP’s commitment to spending restraint.

The House Republican leader, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, will give lawmakers a chance for a direct vote on raising the debt limit, spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Times.

That would be a break with the recent tactic of burying the debt limit increase in parliamentary maneuvers — a way to shield vulnerable lawmakers from having to take the unpopular vote — and would instantly give leverage to those in Congress hoping to impose immediate spending cuts.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, was asked Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he would vote to raise the debt ceiling, and said, “No, I won’t.”

“Not unless this debt ceiling is combined with some path to balancing our budget, returning to 2008 spending levels, repealing Obamacare. We have got to demonstrate that we have the resolve to cut spending … we cannot allow that to go through the Congress without showing the American people that we are going to balance the budget, and we’re not going to continue to raise the debt in America,” he said.

Mr. Boehner’s top deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, was making a pre-emptive argument Sunday that the upcoming debt-limit debate will be a test for President Obama as much as it will be for congressional Republicans, especially given the way the midterm elections went.

“The president’s got a responsibility as much or more so than Congress to make sure that we are continuing to function in a way that the people want,” Mr. Cantor said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Analysts say at the rate the government is spending, the debt limit — currently just under $14.3 trillion — will likely be breached in the spring.

Raising the debt limit is considered a must-pass bill, since failure to pass it would mean the government would shut down because it could no longer borrow money. But that urgency gives leverage to conservatives who say they’ll extract their pound of flesh for the vote by insisting it be coupled with spending cuts or longer-term spending caps.

Leaders in both chambers think they have time to work things out, though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told Fox News that the bill will come with “strings attached, if it happens” — a signal that the GOP is willing to stage a fight.

Some lawmakers say the more that gets cut now, the longer it will take to reach the debt limit, and therefore the more time their party’s leaders will have to work out a broader strategy.

“We know the American economy is going to collapse, so why don’t we start the hard work of cutting spending now?” said John Hart, spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has carved out a niche as Congress’s chief spending watchdog. “We’re already in a crisis, and the time to reduce spending is immediately.”

Mr. Hart said his boss is “willing to block it, to put a hold on it, to use all procedural tools available, to ensure Congress reduces spending.”

Mr. Boehner’s commitment to holding a standalone vote on the debt limit is in keeping with his promise to let the House debate, amend and vote on major bills — breaking with recent past, when both GOP and Democratic leaders limited the opportunity for freewheeling debate.

For most of the last three decades, the House has followed what’s been known as the “Gephardt Rule,” a convoluted process named after its author, former Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. Under the procedure, once the House votes on its budget, another bill is automatically written and sent to the Senate containing the higher debt limit — without House lawmakers ever having to vote on it specifically.

For such powerful legislation, the language itself if quite simple, and usually amounts to just a couple of lines striking out the old limit and inserting a new figure in its place.

Holding the debt-limit increase hostage to win spending restraints has a long history, including in the mid-1980s, when spending limits — sponsored in part by GOP Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire — were attached to a debt-limit increase.

At that time, the debt limit stood at about $2 trillion total.

Today, the government adds that much debt in a little more than a year, and as of Thursday, the nation’s debt stood at $13.723 trillion. That’s a little less than the nearly $14.3 trillion limit Congress set in February — a level the government is likely to reach in the first half of next year.

Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said that to keep from bumping up against that limit the government would have to bring its budget into balance, an impossible task for Congress, since 40 percent of the budget isn’t funded right now.

Raising the debt limit is such a distasteful vote that the majority party in Congress always struggles to garner the votes — and the minority party, whether Democrats or Republicans, rarely provides any help. That makes next year, when control of Congress will be split, all the more interesting.

It also raises the question of how Mr. Obama will react if Congress attaches deep spending cuts to the debt increase.

“President Obama could look at a debt-limit showdown as being similar to President Clinton’s government shutdown, where the conventional wisdom is that the Democratic president ended up coming out on top,” Mr. Riedl said. But, he added, “it all depends on what’s attached to the bill.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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