The House returns this week to a vote on a resolution to reject President Obama’s request to raise the national debt limit, now $15.24 trillion, by $1.2 trillion – the final element of a debt ceiling agreement that Congress approved on Aug. 1.
At first glance, Wednesday’s vote would seem to reopen the most toxic debate of this Congress, which took the nation to the brink of the first-ever default on the national debt last summer.
But, by design, Wednesday’s vote will be more theatrical than practical. Even if the House votes, as expected, to reject the president’s request, the measure still has to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and avoid a presidential veto – both highly unlikely outcomes. The special treatment of the issue was part of the political compromise last summer that prevented default while allowing Mr. Obama to raise the debt limit and allowed Republicans to disapprove.
“This is all preordained,” says Stan Collender, a longtime federal budget analyst with Qorvis Communications in Washington. “The debt ceiling increase had to happen, and this allows Republicans to vote against it.”
In effect, Washington has built itself a buffer heading into the 2012 elections. The big partisan clashes on spending and the debt limits were settled in Congress last year. The federal government is now funded until Oct. 1, the start of a new fiscal year. With this week’s expected hike in the debt limit, the federal government should have enough room for borrowing through the November elections.
In December, a lame-duck Congress will have to grapple once again with toxic issues, including expiring Bush tax cuts and perhaps another hike in the debt limit. But for now, with the threat of a default or government shutdown off the table, both Democrats and Republicans have more scope for rhetorical warfare.
House Speaker John Boehner launched the new session with a broadside on the Obama administration’s “leadership failure” on the national debt.
“The vote itself is an indictment of the administration’s reckless spending binge that has driven America’s economy down a disastrous fiscal path and hurt job creation at a critical time for middle-class families and small businesses,” he said, in a statement.
Since Obama took office, the national debt has increased some $4.6 trillion, “the most rapid increase in debt under any US president,” Mr. Boehner adds. Current federal debt now exceeds the US gross domestic product, and the US is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends.
In response to critics, the president has said that stimulus spending was essential to keep the nation out of a deeper economic slump – and, moreover, that the need to raise the debt limit was the result of congressionally authorized spending and that Congress should take responsibility for its own decisions.
At a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer called the debt-ceiling disapproval vote “a charade.”
Even the conservative Club for Growth, which sees itself as a watchdog on fiscal conservative issues, blasted House Republicans for “self congratulatory press releases” expressing outrage over the debt ceiling hike after the vote, when, in fact, 174 House Republicans and 28 GOP senators voted to give Obama the authority to raise the debt ceiling effectively on his own.
“The hypocrisy of many of these so-called ‘tea party conservatives’ will be on full display,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said in a statement Tuesday.
To date, the Club for Growth is running campaign ads against only three GOP lawmakers for not being conservative enough on fiscal issues: Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.
Obama formally requested that Congress raise the national debt limit in a letter to Speaker Boehner on Jan. 12. “Further borrowing is required to meet existing commitments,” he wrote.