Congress established the first national debt limit in 1917 at $11.5 billion, setting up high-risk votes to increase the debt limit ever since.
In 1979, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri proposed setting the debt limit automatically at the level projected by the most recent budget resolution. The rule, still in effect, allows for the debt limit to be raised without the House having to take an unpopular stand-alone vote.
In 1995, then-majority House Republicans waived the Gephardt rule. They refused to raise the debt limit in a bid to force President Clinton to accept spending cuts – prompting two government shutdowns.
Republicans in that era eventually blinked. But many of the incoming freshmen Republicans campaigned against raising the debt limit and say that they welcome a faceoff with President Obama over cutting spending and reining in government.