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Campaign Promises Complicate Debt Limit Problem for GOP

House Republican leaders will have an array of options at their disposal to try to pass a debt limit increase next year, but avowed opposition from the tea party means none will be a slam dunk.

Raising the $14.3 trillion federal debt ceiling will be necessary in the first half of 2011 to avoid a government shutdown, according to the Treasury Department. But it also runs counter to the campaign promises of a number of tea-party-backed freshman Members.

The prevailing wisdom among Republicans is that they will have to package the debt limit increase with assorted other items to get conservatives to back it. “It can be linked — directly or indirectly — with any number of things: spending cuts, budget reforms, etc.,” a GOP leadership aide said. “We’ve got plenty of time to work through the options.”

The cold, hard fact is that no Republican or Democrat has put forward a proposal that would instantly bring the budget into balance, or even close to balance. Spending is exceeding revenues by about $100 billion a month, and House Republicans have so far only pledged to cut spending by $100 billion a year while extending all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that an across-the-board extension of the tax cuts for 10 years would cost $4 trillion.

Speaker-designate John Boehner said last week that he is already talking to new Members about the need to raise the debt limit. “I’ve made it pretty clear to them that, as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear the Congress is going to have to deal with this,” the Ohio Republican said in a news conference. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and … we have obligations on our part.”

But Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), the co-founder of the Tea Party Caucus who withdrew her bid for a GOP leadership post, posted a column last week on Townhall.com ripping the idea.

“Congress simply cannot continue to operate under the pretense of ‘gangster government,’ raising the limit upon our whim,” she wrote. “We aren’t going to find financial stability by allowing ourselves to fall further down the rabbit hole.”

The question is whether Republican leaders can overcome the likes of Bachmann to find a majority in the House.

During another tough vote two years ago — on a bill creating the Troubled Asset Relief Program requested by President George W. Bush — Boehner and other House Republican leaders failed to keep their rank and file on board.

“In order to get their freshmen on board, they are going to have to do more than just a fig leaf,” another GOP aide said.

One senior GOP aide suggested the party could build up credibility before the vote. “The spiraling national debt is a result of years of fiscal mismanagement from members of both parties, and righting the ship is going to take time,” the aide said. “It’s essential that in the five months prior to the debt limit vote, Republicans start righting that ship by taking long overdue steps to cut spending and rein in government. If we do our work properly, we’ll have shown signs that things are finally beginning to be managed properly.”

Speaking Nov. 3 on Fox News, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also suggested strings would have to be attached to a debt limit increase to address spending.

But that could quickly devolve into a dangerous high-stakes game of chicken. There’s no guarantee that the Democratic-controlled Senate, let alone the White House, will go along with any such plan.

Getting Republicans to back a straight-up debt limit increase would be much harder politically, although one parliamentary tactic, known as the Gephardt Rule, could ease that path. Under that rule, which has been used by both Democrats and Republicans, if the House and Senate pass a joint budget resolution, the House automatically sends the debt limit increase assumed in the budget without a separate vote to the Senate.

That could add some spice to bipartisan budget talks early next year, but there is no guarantee that the House and Senate will be able to agree on a broader budget blueprint before a debt limit increase is needed.

A straight-up debt limit increase, meanwhile, will be hard to pass solely with Republican votes.

Typically, the minority votes en masse against the debt limit increase, making it a test of the majority’s ability to govern. That could result in an unusual dynamic where House Republicans are asked by their leadership to walk the plank on a debt limit vote, while Senate Republicans can let the bulk of their Conference vote against it.

But one Republican aide questioned whether the GOP would have to provide all of the votes in the House for a straight-up debt increase, arguing that House Democrats would risk embarrassing the president. “Having a government shutdown isn’t good for this White House either,” the aide said. “Ultimately, they can’t allow that to happen because there are real stakes here. … The president would look inept.”

But a senior Democratic aide said the GOP shouldn’t count on getting many Democratic votes under any scenario. “They made us do it, and our Members didn’t want to,” the aide said. “They are just going to have to beat their Members into submission like we did.”