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Battle Over U.S. Debt Limit Looms

November 1, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

If Sen. Mitch McConnell [R, KY] actually values making Obama a one-term President above all else as he told the National Journal recently, he and his fellow Republicans will have a perfect chance to muck things up in the very near future when debt ceiling legislation comes up in order to avoid defaulting on the national debt. Howard Fineman at the Huffington Post explained recently that we can expect a vote on the debt limit early in the next session, and that, so far, the Republicans have no plans to go along with it.

The most powerful IED on the road ahead is timed to explode some time this spring. Last February, Congress raised the ceiling on the national debt from $12.4 trillion to $14.2 trillion. Since then, the debt has risen to $13.7 trillion — which means Congress will have to raise it yet again within a few months.

A failure to approve one would, technically, bar the government from borrowing more money. In other words, we would not have the cash to pay our bills.

And yet Tea Party candidates and their fellow travelers in the GOP have vowed to oppose further increases in the legal debt ceiling.

If we surpass our statutory debt limit, the results could be catastrophic. The U.S. has never defaulted on a debt payments, and if we begin failing to make our debt payments now world markets would be thrown into chaos. Basically, if the Republicans want to make the economy even worse than it is now in order to pin it on Obama in 2012, refusing to increase the debt limit is a smart move. Center for American Progress has more on what could happen if the debt limit increase is not passed.

If the Democrats hold, say, a 53-seat majority in the Senate next session, they’ll need at least 7 Republicans to cross the aisle and vote with them on the debt limit bill. Evidence from the first two years of the Obama Administration suggests that’s going to be difficult, if not impossible. On the three bills containing debt limit increases that were passed by the 111th Congress and signed into law by Obama, an average of 1 Republican sided with the Democrats. On the other hand, of the 7 debt limit bills passed under the Bush Administration, an average of 39 Republicans voted in favor.

It’s all about who’s in the White House. One of the last bills the 110th Congress passed under the Bush Administration contained an increase in the debt, and 33 Republicans voted for it. Just a few months later, right after the Obama Administration took power only 2 Republicans voted in favor of a bill raising the debt limit. Now, in these two examples, the debt limit provisions were attached to larger bills — TARP and the Stimulus Act — but, take a look at the historical data and the trend is born out.

Speaking with unusual candor after the most recent debt limit vote, Rep. Michael Simpson [R, ID-2] said that it wasn’t the minority party’s responsibility to vote for raising the debt limit and called such votes “the burden of the majority.” It’s not clear how the Democratic majority will pull this off next session over what will likely be unanimous Republican opposition. David Waldman at Congress Matters suggests that the Democrats take up filibuster reform first, possibly in the lame duck session, so they can do it with 51 votes.

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