Hitting the Ceiling
Republicans debate whether and how to raise the federal debt limit.


Andrew Stiles

What happens when you get close to the limit on your credit card? Well, if you’re the United States Congress, you can just vote to increase that limit and carry on spending — and Congress has done just that five times in the past four years.

Not this time. Not so fast, anyway. President Obama, who on Thursday formally requested congressional approval to increase the national debt limit — currently set at $14.3 trillion — will have to persuade a Tea Party–infused 112th Congress, and soon. The limit is expected to be reached sometime this spring.

Just as Republicans were able to leverage a January 1 deadline to strike a deal with the White House on tax rates during the lame-duck session, they are now hoping to use the urgency of this situation to force Democrats to swallow a hefty dose of fiscal restraint.

There are, of course, a number of leading conservatives who are dead set against raising the debt ceiling under any circumstances, even if it means forcing a government shutdown similar to the one orchestrated by former speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, or risking default. Familiar faces such as those of Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) have been joined by a chorus of freshman members, many of whom explicitly campaigned against raising the debt limit.

However, most Republicans, bowing to reality (and remembering the blow that the GOP’s reputation suffered as a result of the 1995 shutdown), have decided on a more pragmatic approach. A number of ideas have been put forward as to what a compromise might look like. Many of them center on efforts to rein in government spending (though none have been specific about what would be cut).

“You can’t not raise the debt ceiling,” said House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) during a forum at the National Press Club on Thursday. “But we want to have real fiscal controls, real spending cuts to go with this.” Perennial fiscal hawk Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) agreed, telling National Review Online that any debt increase “has to be in tandem with spending cuts.” Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who has characteristically threatened to filibuster the vote, said he wanted $300 billion in agreed cuts before he’d back down. And the new House speaker, John Boehner (R., Ohio), said in a statement Thursday that “the American people will not stand for” an increase to the debt limit “unless it is accompanied by meaningful action . . . to cut spending.”

But some GOP lawmakers would like to see more than just spending cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on Meet the Press that Social Security reform should also be on the table. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) has suggested that comprehensive tax reform be included as part of a deal.

One idea that has started to catch on is a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) to tie raising the debt ceiling to a balanced-budget amendment. Cornyn introduced such a bill in December, and it was unanimously approved by the Republican Conference.

Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly said Republicans should aim big. In return for raising the debt ceiling, the GOP should demand “pretty dramatic reforms,” not only in terms of spending but also in terms of comprehensive structural changes to the budget process, entitlements, and the tax code. “We need to go farther than just a few symbolic cuts,” he told National Review Online. “Republicans need to show the game has changed and a new sheriff is in town.” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe agreed, saying any arrangement should include significant and immediate spending cuts, as well as longer-term structural reforms such as a balanced-budget amendment and perhaps a few elements of Ryan’s “Roadmap for America.”