Debt Ceiling Is the GOP’s New Third Rail of Politics
Policy + Politics

Debt Ceiling Is the GOP’s New Third Rail of Politics

Emily Flake

It has long been an axiom on Capitol Hill that Social Security is the “third rail of politics – touch it and you die.”

Now it looks as if the federal debt ceiling has become the GOP’s new third-rail. They can’t agree among themselves whether to allow the government’s borrowing authority to rise unencumbered--as President Obama has repeatedly demanded--or attempt to extract a political concession as the price of their support.

For now, nobody really wants to touch it – although they are fast running out of time to make up their minds.

Related: Business Groups Warn GOP to Drop Debt Ceiling Battle   

After several days of talks with their members, House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders have failed to come up with a debt ceiling package that could pass the House with only Republican support, according to Politico. House Republicans are sorely divided over what – if anything—to attach to new debt ceiling legislation that will be needed by the end of the month if the Treasury Department is to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. debt.

Speaking after a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday, Boehner said that while there are a lot of opinions regarding how to deal with the debt limit, there is no consensus. One thing is clear, though. He and other GOP leaders have no intention of forcing a showdown with the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president that could lead to a default.

"Nobody wants to default on our debt," Boehner said. “While we're doing this [however], we ought to do something on either jobs or the economy, about the drivers of our debt, and so we're talking to our members."

Related: Keystone Pipeline: Job Creator or Environmental Menace?   

Many including Boehner favor attaching language to pressure Obama to support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil from Canada to U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast – a move that Republicans say would create much needed construction jobs. “It’s been under study for five years,” Boehner said in a video posted by his office on Wednesday. “We build pipelines everywhere in America every day. . . .We can build it.”

Others favor a change to the Affordable Care Act to eliminate a provision designed to limit insurers’ losses and gains that Republicans claim is potentially a costly “bailout.” A third possibility is to repeal a measure in last December’s bipartisan budget deal that reduces annual cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees under the age of 62. 

Boehner has been powerless to forge a majority around any one idea, while many conservatives simply refuse to vote for any package that would increase the government’s borrowing authority beyond the current $17 trillion-plus limit. Without a united GOP front, House leaders would need support from Democrats to pass any bill. But few House Democrats are prepared to buck the president and vote for a debt ceiling bill that has policy demands attached to it.

Related: Mitch McConnell Hints at Another Debt Ceiling Showdown  

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Congress must raise the debt ceiling by the end of February at the latest to avoid a default. The clock will begin ticking on Friday, when the old debt limit that was temporarily lifted as part of the budget deal will be reinstated and Treasury officials must once again utilize “extraordinary measures” to stay within those borrowing limitations.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) urged Republicans during a hearing yesterday to give up their ransom demands and raise the debt ceiling without any strings attached. “The longer Republicans take to dream up empty debt limit demands, the more economic uncertainty and harm they’ll cause for workers, families and businesses,” she said. At the same hearing, Moody’s top economist urged Congress to quickly raise the limit to sustain what is projected to be fairly strong economic growth over the next few years.

Republicans have repeatedly incurred voter wrath by using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, as they did in 2011 and again last fall, when a political battle over spending levels and the Affordable Care Act triggered a 16-day government shutdown. A recent CNN/ORC International poll showed that 54 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, compared to just 29 percent who would blame Obama.

Debt Ceiling Drama: Will You Get Your Tax Refund on Time?   

Obama declared at a news conference last December that “the debt ceiling is raised simply to pay bills that we have already accrued.” He add, "It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It's not leverage. It's the responsibility of Congress as part of doing their job. I expect them to do their job."

Obama concluded with the assumption that "folks aren't crazy enough to start that thing all over again."

House Republicans are considering resurrecting a strategy to force the Senate to vote on a number of separate initiatives as a fallback position, without making passage of those items a requirement for raising the nation's borrowing limit, according to National Journal.

These multiple resolutions would be brought under a rule that allows the Senate to pass just the first measure as a "clean" debt-ceiling increase, but only after they vote on the other resolutions, which could contain measures that Republicans believe would be politically difficult for Democrats to reject.

A similar strategy was floated by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) last fall during the budget battle over Obamacare, but was rejected by conservatives because it didn’t provide enough real leverage.

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