'World News' Political Insights: Debt Fight Brings Political Knives

Next spending battle has higher stakes, trickier politics for both sides

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2011— -- In the great spending wars of 2011, there's no rest for the very weary.

The compromise that averted a government shutdown late Friday night has among its hallmarks the distinction of being the type of agreement that both sides attacked before they came around to embrace it.

Republicans insisted on more cuts and more policy bite; they settled for less money and none of the most significant provisions affecting abortion and environmental law. Democrats drew a line in the sand on budget cuts, but they had to redraw it even without knowing what the line-item impact will be.

The disappointment and resentment on both sides of the aisle adds fuel to the far larger fight over spending to come. The nation is fast running out of room under the legal debt limit -- setting up a vote with worldwide implications that far exceed the worries over partial government shutdowns.

Looming over the politics of debt are a number of stubborn facts.

First, all involved in the debate at high levels recognize that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be a monumental disaster. The United States defaulting on creditors would almost certainly crater global financial markets, as is widely and publicly acknowledged among leaders of both parties.

Second, the modern history of the debt limit has been such that where politicians stand typically depends on where they sit. Tough votes to authorize more debt have traditionally fallen to the party controlling the White House. That's why then-Senator Barack Obama could vote against a higher debt ceiling in 2006 -- yet warn that any similar vote would be irresponsible now that he's president in 2011.

Third, this moment represents perhaps the biggest chance for leverage over fiscal and economic matters that Republicans are likely to have so long as a Democrat controls the White House. No issue animates the GOP base as intensely as runaway spending. Republicans' partial victory over the budget has whet the appetite of those fighting for far more drastic spending cuts.

That means the president's insistence on a "clean" bill that only raises the debt ceiling, without addressing government spending more broadly, is a non-starter inside the GOP-controlled House.

"There is no way we Republicans are going to support increasing the debt limit without guaranteed steps being put in place to ensure the spending doesn't get out of control again," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on "Fox News Sunday."

Layered on top of this fight is the tea party movement and its new members in Congress. Elements inside the tea party argue that voting down the debt limit would be precisely the kind of dramatic stance the nation needs, since it would force enormous spending cuts, as well as fundamental shifts in the way government programs are structured.

This leaves Republicans with a sizeable incentive to make any vote on the debt limit contingent on outside promises and concessions. That's what will make the next five weeks -- about as long as the nation has before reaching its current debt limit of $14.3 trillion, according to the Treasury Department -- politically explosive.

The promise of a vote on a balanced budget amendment is just the least of what Republicans feel they can demand in exchange for a higher debt limit. Though negotiations have yet to begin on this front, there's no limit to the policy imagination -- and, of course, the budget-cutting promises -- of what Republicans may try to insert as a condition of a debt ceiling increase.

The situation is fluid even in the Senate, though Democratic control of that body means fewer concessions are likely to be necessary.

Intriguingly, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been pressing his colleagues not to filibuster a debt limit increase. That would mean only 50 senators -- not 60 -- would have to be on record in support of a higher debt limit, meaning Democrats could (and almost certainly would have to) own the issue by themselves in the Senate.

That plan, though, won't fly with many of the new tea party-aligned senators, who view the debt limit as a defining debate of the congressional session. But that won't make the votes any easier for fiscally conservative senators who are up for reelection next year, such as Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The words that will be referenced most this month by Republicans belong to President Obama, from that 2006 Senate debate over the debt limit.

"America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better," then-Senator Obama said. "I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit."

Today, White House adviser David Plouffe called that vote "a mistake." But in a debate where talking points seem to switch along with control of the White House, those remain words that the GOP can feast on.

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