$14,300,000,000,000: Debt Limit Showdown Looming

Interview John Boehner: Part 4

Republicans took control of the House of Representatives with vows to cut federal spending, but the GOP will soon face a stern test of its fiscal discipline early next year when Congress is set to raise the country's debt limit yet again.

The debate is already raging over what to do. Refuse to raise the debt ceiling and risk a fiscal crisis? Or relent and risk alienating the voters who entrusted the GOP to tighten the federal purse-strings?

"One key test Republicans will face as early as this spring will be whether to bail out career politicians who have failed to budget by increasing the national debt limit, or instead force them to cut spending," wrote Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in a Washington Examiner op-ed Friday.

"If Republicans vote to raise the debt without insisting on spending cuts, whatever credibility we may have will be gone," he warned.

But Rep. John Boehner, the likely new Speaker of the House, told ABC's Diane Sawyer on Thursday that there are "multiple options" for how to deal with the debt limit, noting that Congress will make sure the country is "ready to meet our obligations."

"Increasing the debt limit allows our government to meet its obligations," he noted. "And I think that there are multiple options for how you deal with it. But for our team, I think we're going to have to demonstrate that we've got to have reductions in spending. The government's spending more than what we bring in. We can't afford it."

"We're not quite sure when we're going to face this increase in the debt limit, but when we do, we'll be ready to meet our obligations," he added.

At this point it appears that Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling sometime early next year. The national debt is currently north of $13.7 trillion, fast approaching the limit of $14.3 trillion.

The looming debate over the debt limit will highlight divisions within the GOP, said Stan Collender, a former staffer for the House and Senate Budget committees and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games.

"The real tension won't be between Republicans and Democrats. It'll be between Republicans and Republicans," Collender said. "With the Coburn and [Sen. Jim] DeMint wing of the party saying, 'Not over our dead bodies', and the establishment types like Boehner and [Sen. Mitch] McConnell saying, 'We don't have a choice'."

But raising the limit is easier said than done. Just look at the last time Congress voted to increase it. Last February, the Senate vote fell strictly along party lines, with all 60 Senate Democrats supporting the raise and all 39 Senate Republicans opposing it. Come next year, the Democratic majority in the Senate will have shrunk to 53.

In the wake of last February's debate, President Obama formed a bipartisan commission to come up with a plan to cut the nation's soaring deficit. The commission has to submit its report by Dec. 1, but it seems unlikely that a required 14 members of the 18-person panel will agree on a plan to slash the deficit by one-third by 2015.

One member of the panel, retiring Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Thursday on ABC's "Top Line" that both parties need to heed the message sent by the voters in the midterm election.

"The message is not confused and both sides of the aisle should have got the message and it's stop the spending, get the deficit under control, get this economy going," he said.

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