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Debt Debate to Turn Into Partisan Brawl

Senate Republicans are looking to turn this week’s debate over a longer-term debt ceiling increase into a referendum on the Democrats’ economic policies.

GOP Members plan to use the opportunity to attack Democrats on multiple fronts: offering up amendments — such as Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune’s (S.D.) proposal to sunset the Troubled Asset Relief Program — and taking to the floor to criticize the majority’s spending priorities and approach to the nation’s economic woes. Senators passed a $250 billion, short-term debt ceiling increase just before Christmas, with plans to take up a longer-term increase this year. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is planning to begin debate on a $925 billion increase as early as today, but progress could be halted to allow the chamber to debate the nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as head of the Federal Reserve.

“We want this debate. … The big-picture issue is all the money we’re spending and [how] all these other issues, like health care, fit into that,— a senior GOP leadership aide said, adding that the GOP will focus on “the amount of debt we’ve accumulated, especially over the last year.—

Republicans “will continue to wage an aggressive campaign against the majority’s pattern of reckless spending. At a time when millions of Americans are experiencing financial difficulties from overusing their own credit cards, Democrats are still at it,— a senior GOP aide added.

GOP Senators say they want to try to stop Reid from passing a debt limit increase that goes through the end of the year. In addition to forcing the Democrats to take another politically unpopular vote just before the November midterm elections, the GOP wants to make the case that the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats should pass another short-term increase to identify cost-cutting measures and scale back their ambitious spending proposals.

Republican operatives said Tuesday that Senators are convinced they can parley this month’s fight — and a second, late summer battle — into election year gains. Senate Democrats are on defense heading into the election year and could suffer major losses at the ballot box this November.

The leadership aide noted that despite the arcane subject matter, public interest in the debt ceiling has proven surprisingly high. Republicans believe their under-the-Dome campaign against the longer-term hike, coupled with the broader public concern over the economy, has put the issue on the front burner.

“For strategic reasons, obviously,— Republicans would like to initiate another fight over the issue because “more attention is being paid to it than if it had been a year extension,— the leadership aide said.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senate leaders were scrambling Tuesday to strike a deal on the issue that would appease their fiscal conservatives and court enough Republican votes for final passage. Reid may strike that balance if he’s able to reach an agreement with enough Senators on an amendment by Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to create a Congressionally appointed deficit commission.

That amendment is backed by a coalition of three dozen Senators but is not expected to pass when it hits the floor as early as this week. If a worthy and viable alternative surfaces in the meantime, however, Reid may still be able to entice a few moderate Republicans to cross over and vote for the final package.

“Sen. Reid agrees with Sen. Conrad about the need for leaders on both sides of the aisle to come together to address our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges,— Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said of the negotiations. “He has been working with Sen. Conrad and the administration on this matter and hopes that there will be broad, bipartisan support for a serious effort at deficit reduction.—

While Obama had previously said he opposed the proposal, White House aides continued working with Democratic aides on Tuesday to reach an alternative.

Meanwhile, Obama met Tuesday with Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) on the debt limit increase. Voinovich, a moderate who is retiring at the end of this year, was the lone Republican to vote in favor of last month’s short-term increase and his support is considered essential to passing the next increase. Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) broke with his fellow Democrats to vote against the short-term increase last month and likely won’t support the longer extension.

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