Debt ceiling 101: eight questions about the latest round

Congress has until the end of February to raise the federal government’s borrowing limit, known as the debt ceiling, or the country risks going into default. We’ve seen this movie many times in recent years: Republicans demand concessions, President Obama usually refuses, and the debt ceiling is raised anyway.

The last increase came on Oct. 17, 2013, when the debt ceiling was suspended until Feb. 7, 2014. On that day, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said he could use “extraordinary measures” to push that deadline to Feb. 27.

How is this time different from the previous rounds of debt ceiling politics? Here’s a guide, plus the context.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
A woman looks at the US Capitol in Washington on New Year's Eve, 2013. Congress has until the end of the month to raise the debt ceiling to avoid the prospect of the country going into default.

1. How is this time different?

The politics have changed. Republicans were blamed for the government shutdown last October, which was triggered by an effort to defund Obamacare. Although that wasn’t debt ceiling politics, the GOP would be blamed now if Congress failed to raise the debt limit. A CNN/ORC International poll released Feb. 3 found that 54 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, while 29 percent would blame the president. Twelve percent would blame both sides.

Republicans know that their leverage is limited and that the public is tired of Washington dysfunction. But some Republicans still want to make a point about issues they care about by linking them to an increase in the debt ceiling. For a while, Republicans wanted to link presidential approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline with an increase in the debt ceiling. Another target was a repeal of “risk corridors” – one of the risk mitigation measures in Obamacare that opponents call a “bailout” of insurance companies. Both strategies fell by the wayside.

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