What will Congress do about the debt ceiling?

If all you wanted for Christmas was another budgetary battle royale, you were probably disappointed when both parties in Congress inked a two-year budget agreement in December, defanging the prospect of a government shutdown for the foreseeable future.

    But don’t despair - 2014 will bring all sorts of new and exciting opportunities for lawmakers to play games with the United States economy, squabbling over fiscal policy and blowing past deadlines.

Up first on the fiscal docket when Congress returns next week: the debt ceiling fight (again.)

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew fired the customary opening salvo in December, pleading with lawmakers to raise the nation’s borrowing authority “well before” a February deadline.

“I am writing to urge Congress to take prompt action to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by extending the nation's borrowing authority,” he wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other congressional leaders. “The American public expects its leaders to put an end to governing by crisis and to focus on promoting economic growth and job creation. I respectfully urge Congress to take action to raise the debt limit at the earliest possible moment and ideally well before February 7, 2014.”

Lew noted in his letter that extraordinary measures on his part could extend that deadline by a few weeks, but his warning was clear: Don’t play with fire again, folks.

The president and Democrats in Congress haven’t budged in their approach to the issue, demanding a clean, prompt vote to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. They’ve also warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling before the nation’s borrowing authority expires could invite the calamitous prospect of a default on U.S. sovereign debt.

Asked by CNN’s Brianna Keillar at his final 2013 news conference whether he would negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling, Mr. Obama seemed amused she even had to ask.

“Oh, Brianna, you know the answer to his question,” he replied. “No, we're not going to negotiate for Congress to pay bills that it has accrued.”

 Mr. Obama also expressed a hope that the recent bipartisan good-feeling surrounding the budgetary agreement could bleed over into the debate over the debt ceiling. “I can't imagine that having seen this possible daylight breaking when it comes to cooperation in Congress, that folks are thinking, actually, about plunging us back into the kinds of brinksmanship and governance by crisis that has done us so much harm over the last couple of years,” he said. “I've got to assume folks aren't crazy enough to start that thing all over again.”

Key congressional Democrats have voiced similar hopes for a smooth process. “I would predict that Republicans will back off any hostage taking, adding extraneous, irrelevant issues to the debt ceiling,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-in-command Senate Democrat, last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I understand there is some saber-rattling right now by Speaker [John] Boehner and [Senate] Minority Leader [Mitch] McConnell. And that’s natural.”

But for all the optimistic predictions from Democrats, it’s not at all clear that Republicans are ready to play nice.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Republicans have routinely used the debt ceiling vote to extract spending cuts from Democrats, leveraging the pressure of a potential default to push their own preferred fiscal policies.

The last budget fight and the resultant government shutdown took a toll on Republicans’ approval ratings, dragging the party into its deepest level of unpopularity in years.

But for all the damage done to the party by the last fiscal fight, there are emerging signs that Republicans are gearing up for a fresh confrontation, prepping a list of demands in advance of any congressional action on the debt ceiling.

 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on last month that a clean debt increase looks highly unlikely: “I doubt if the House, or for that matter, the Senate, is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was asked by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last month what Republicans might demand in exchange for a vote to raise the debt ceiling, and he previewed at least one item on his wish-list.

“I believe we need to approve Keystone pipeline. We need to produce regulatory certainties to all this private capital that develops this energy boon," Ryan said. "If we just get the government out of the way, it could be a real renaissance of oil and gas exploration in America, lower our gas prices, stop sending this money to foreign countries."

Boehner, perhaps the most pivotal player in the guessing game surrounding the GOP’s approach to the upcoming debt ceiling fight, hasn’t tipped his cards one way or another. He was asked about the debt ceiling before the budget agreement was finalized, and he would only say that he wants to deal with the issues one at a time.

“The goal for today is to get the budget agreement passed,” he said, “and we’ll deal with the debt ceiling when we get there.”

Still, in an encouraging sign for Democrats, there are also signs that some in the GOP believe the debt ceiling has outlived its usefulness as a point of leverage. 

When Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was asked last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press” if he could preview his party’s approach to the upcoming fight, he seemed inclined to throw up his hands and simply walk away. 

“I can’t really speak for Republicans,” he said. “My thoughts are, the American people don’t think we have a debt ceiling. Because we always increase it.”

The National Review, a conservative magazine that frequently serves as a bellwether of GOP elites’ opinions, read the conservative senator’s remarks as “Coburn hints GOP will cave on debt-limit negotiations.

That particular interpretation seems like an ambitious extrapolation of what Coburn actually said, but his words may be just enough to put a spring in the step of Democrats who have been frustrated several times before by hard-bargaining Republicans.

  • Jake Miller

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