Poison vote looms for tea party freshmen: Raise the national debt limit?

Congress is months from a vote on whether to raise the national debt limit. But House Republicans are already bracing for what could be the toughest vote tea party freshmen face.

Ed Reinke/AP/file
Republican Sen.-elect Rand Paul (l.) enjoys a light moment with his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, during a campaign event in Erlanger, Ky., Oct. 2. The Pauls are leading a bid to vote against raising the national debt limit.

Even though a vote to raise the national debt limit – now just under $14.3 trillion – is months away, House Republican leaders are already preparing their caucus for what could be the toughest vote for a bumper freshman class.

About half of the 85-member Republican House freshman class ran with backing from tea party groups – all of them on a platform to curb or cap government spending. Many of these candidates slammed Democrats they defeated for previous votes to increase the debt limit – votes, they said, that enabled big government spending.

Now, they face the other side of the issue: A vote against raising the debt limit means the government could run out of money. Will fiscal responsibility look so appealing if the government essentially shuts down?

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GOP leaders hope to frame the debt vote in a broader context of rigorous budget cutting and enhanced oversight.

“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," said GOP leader John Boehner at a press conference.

"We’re going to have to deal with it as adults,” he added. “Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”

Congressman Boehner's pragmatic line, however, will be tough for many Republicans to swallow.

“This is going to cause considerable consternation for many Republicans who came to Washington running against Democrats for raising the debt limit, regardless of whether they fight it,” says David Wasserman, who covered 2010 House races for the Cook Political Report. “If it passes they’re going to assume some responsibility and there’s going to be some serious heat from the tea party movement and Republican voters.”

Tea party backers Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas and Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, his son, are leading opposition to raising the debt limit. “It would look very negative to the rest of the world to not vote to increase the debt limit," says Congressman Paul. "We might have to be late on payments to government contractors. It would be chaotic.”

“But having such huge debts is very negative, too.”

Critics call that view irresponsible. “It does make a difference if you don’t raise the debt ceiling: the government will run out of cash,” says Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications in Washington. “Delaying payments to social security recipients or government contractors is a nonstarter. It’s the day we start to look like a third world country.”

Boehner, expected to be voted Speaker in the 112th Congress, says that the House Republican caucus has yet to engage the issue. “We’ll have time over the coming months to discuss that issue and how we might move such an issue, but those conversations haven’t started yet,” he said.

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