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Debt Ceiling Standoff? Not This Time

House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans could give President Obama the clean debt ceiling increase he wants but not for the reasons the president wants it.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans could give President Obama the clean debt ceiling increase he wants but not for the reasons the president wants it.

When the federal government hits its debt ceiling at the end of the month, don't expect another big red-on-blue confrontation.

The appetite in the House Republican conference for that kind of debt-defying standoff isn't what it was last fall when the nation was hit by the double whammy of the debt limit and partial federal government shutdown.

And the House GOP can't even agree on what points to negotiate with President Obama — who has said he's not willing to negotiate on the debt ceiling anyway.

As a result, there's now the possibility that the GOP failure to find intraparty agreement may lead to the very thing Obama has been wanted all along — a clean debt ceiling bill. But he would get it by default, so to speak.

Steve Bell, a fiscal expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Republican Senate aide who's familiar with House Republican discussions, says the two likeliest options at this point are a clean debt ceiling bill or legislation linking an increase in the government's borrowing authority to restoration of recent cuts to military pension benefits.

The lowered cost-of-living adjustments for retired military was part of the budget agreement reached last year by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"It was the only entitlement savings in the whole damn plan that Murray and Ryan put together," Bell said. "Republicans and Democrats alike have been trying to kill it," even though Pentagon officials have said the modest COLA reductions are essential for the military to maintain its war-fighting readiness over the coming decade. Growing pension costs are crowding out other defense spending.

"I think the one thing they will do will be disheartening," Bell said. "They will pass the debt bill on time and they will attach to it a reversal of the only retirement savings in the entire ... budget plan. So for guys like me who've been doing this since 1979, this a time when you have a choice between crying and laughing. And I'm just laughing. You can't blame it on one party or the other."

The smart money is on the debt ceiling being raised perhaps for as long as a year. That would put the next vote to raise it safely past the midterm elections and perhaps into the next Congress. If the vote came just after the elections instead, it would mean a lame-duck Congress, with its many retiring members, would vote on a higher debt ceiling — removing the controversy at least from the new Congress' immediate to-do list.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, also expects that a debt-ceiling boost will happen in a remarkably straightforward way given the turbulence of recent years.

"It looks as though the debt ceiling is likely to be increased without any last minute soap operas," she said. "Ironically, it looks like it will be a clean debt ceiling increase because Republicans are having such a hard time coming up with any viable policy to attach to it."

Instead of a protracted fight, then, what House Republicans are up against is time, the House calendar to be exact. The House only has one full workday this week since the House Democrats' retreat starts Wednesday and goes through Friday.

The House is out the following Presidents' Day week and returns the Tuesday of the last week of February. That leaves no time for dawdling on on their return since Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said the debt ceiling must be raised by Feb. 27 if the nation is to avoid a historic default on its obligations.

One thing a clean debt ceiling bill, or one with legislation restoring the full military pension COLA, would do is make it likelier House GOP leaders could get most Democrats to join with a few dozen Republicans to reach the 218 votes needed to pass a debt ceiling hike.

MacGuineas, a debt hawk, is glad to see the end — at least for now — of the recent practice of holding the nation's credit rating hostage. But she fears what may happen now, or won't happen, now that policymakers don't have the "forcing mechanism" of raising the debt ceiling to make them consider the nation's indebtedness.

"The debt ceiling used to be used as a reminder that we had to focus on debt levels when they were too high," she said. "But at this point, Congress is unable to make any real policy progress that the debt ceiling is likely to be lifted without any effort to try to get control of the fiscal situation."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.