Raising the debt ceiling is shaping up as a difficult early vote for the new House GOP majority. Many of the new Republican lawmakers harshly criticized their Democratic opponents during the campaign for voting to raise the limit in the past, citing it as an example of the Democrats’ recklessness with federal tax dollars.
But on Thursday, Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he’s been talking to the newly elected GOP lawmakers about the need to raise the federal debt ceiling when it comes up early next year.
“I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this,” Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.
“We’re going to have to deal with it as adults,” he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part.”
If an increase in the current debt limit of $14.3 trillion does not pass, it would suggest the country may not meet its obligations and would shake the financial system. It could rock the bond market, rattle the dollar and scare away foreign buyers of U.S. debt.
That puts the Republicans in a tough spot. The GOP will have a House majority of just over 50, and Democrats presumably wouldn’t vote to raise the debt limit, given the tenor of the recent campaign. With about 88 Republican newcomers, GOP leaders might have to persuade many of them to vote for the debt limit. And at least some have made it clear they’re not interested.
Republican leaders hope to circumvent the problem by packaging the debt increase with a plan to cut spending. “We’ll have a lot of time over the coming months to discuss that issue, and how we might move such an issue, but those conversations haven’t started yet,” Mr. Boehner said.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R., Texas), a senior member of the Republican leadership who coordinated the GOP House campaigns, suggested that it would be different when Republicans raise the debt limit than when Democrats did it.
“My sense is when you’re out spending wildly and then you’re willing to raise the debt limit, that’s a problem,” Mr. Sesssions said. “When you are [coming in] with a comprehensive plan, including a budget that clearly lays out priorities and expectations of performance, then say you have to deal with what is there—[that] is a very responsible position.” He added, “We have to have a discussion with our newest members than involves more of a plan…The United States must pay its bills.”
Mr. Sessions suggested Mr. Boehner would talk with President Barack Obama about an agreement that could include a debt limit hike packaged with a rollback of parts of Mr. Obama’s health plan. Mr. Sessions said the issue should not to be politicized, an exhortation likely to be met with skepticism by the Democrats who were targeted by GOP attacks on the issue. “It’s very important to understand that we have a responsibility not to create any issue that divides our country unnecessarily,” he said.
The challenge for Republicans is that many of their highest-profile newcomers are on the record strongly opposing a debt limit increase. Tea party protestors and activists will likely watch the vote as an indication of whether the new lawmakers are sticking by their principles or, as they see it, caving in to Washington ways.
The campaign of Rep.-elect Kristi Noem (R., S.D.) attacked Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for voting to raise the debt limit. Rep.-elect Tim Scott (R., S.C.), who like Ms. Noem is joining the House Republican leadership, reiterated Friday that he wouldn’t vote to raise the ceiling.
In February, Republican Reid Ribble blasted Rep. Steve Kagen (D., Wis.), whom he defeated, for voting to increase the debt limit, calling it “unconscionable” and “insane.” He added, “Congressman Kagen is on notice that the people of northeastern Wisconsin are watching and we are outraged.”
Similarly, Rep.-elect Steve Stivers (R., Ohio) blasted Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy for voting to raise the debt ceiling. “That shows a reckless desire to spend money we don’t have, and borrow money we can’t afford to pay back,” he said.
Rep.-elect Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) cited the raising of the debt limit during the campaign in saying that “Congress and the president are spending our country into servitude.”