Debt-limit may ignite new Washington battle


Pro football has long had instant replay. Pro basketball has it too (sort of) and pro baseball is getting it. But now, just when we need it least, a virtual instant replay may be coming to Congress.

Early in the New Year, Senate and House Republicans will huddle separately to decide if they will force all Americans to endure a virtual replay of the years of name-calling and threat-mongering that we thought the Grand Old Party’s House leaders finally got rid of when they forged the much-ballyhooed budget compromise in these last days of 2013.

But of course that was about the budget — not the debt limit. Never mind that they both sound and seem the same to all the sensible people who live outside the Capital Beltway.

But the debt limit turns out to be one of those cans Washington politicians kicked down the road a year ago. The old limit expires Feb. 7, 2014, and probably sometime in March, the increasing spending that Congress and the president already approved will exceed the legal debt limit.

Congress will have to either raise the limit so the federal government can continue to pay its bills, or else, for the first time in its history, the United States will default.

Here is the political dilemma that the Republican leaders of the House and Senate think they are facing:

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a conservative who does not want a repeat of last October, when Republicans forced a government shutdown and then plummeted in the polls. They seemed devastated and doomed — but only for a few days, when President Barack Obama’s woes over the health-care program rollout caused him to plummet in the polls.

Boehner and his leadership opted for the budget compromise — which prompted tea party critics to denounce his effort.

But Boehner responded by publicly blasting his tea party critics for the first time. Privately, he was even tougher. “They are not fighting for conservative policy,” Boehner told fellow Republicans, as reported by The New York Times. “…They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

Boehner’s new tough line against tea party critics was exactly what he and other party leaders should have done long ago. It was a rallying appeal to all thinking Republicans. After all, the tea party is running primary challengers against stalwart Republican incumbents.

But while the House speaker was tough, Senate Republican leaders seem to come down with laryngitis whenever the tea party was mentioned. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is facing re-election next year, has been fearful of sparking even a flicker of tea party ire back home. Some solidly conservative Republican senators already have tea party challengers; others fear they may also be challenged from the right.

As Boehner and McConnell sound out their troops about whether they want to ditch the bipartisan compromising and battle over raising the debt limit, they will weigh a clash of political risks: Should they risk incurring the wrath of most Americans by starting another game of debt-limit chicken — with the ultimate threat that puts America’s credit rating at risk?

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is eyeing a presidential candidacy, will vote against raising the debt limit unless Democrats agree to include off-setting spending cuts, his spokesman Alex Conant told the Wall Street Journal.

And House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who co-authored the budget compromise and is seen as a 2016 presidential hopeful, said on Fox News that he and his colleagues will be discussing “what it is we want to get out of the debt limit.”

Uh-oh. It sounds like some Republicans want to make the debt limit our next political football. Maybe just to kick it down the road again. But maybe to recklessly toss it around in a game of chicken that features the ultimate threat — the first-ever default of the United States government, a spiteful and senseless act that can hurt us all.

Either way, as we tune to the 24/7 news, we may soon feel like we’re just watching the same old replays, over and over. Replays of Washington’s gamesmanship, brinksmanship and, yes, the same old Washington chickenship.

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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