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Debt Limit Battle Begins Now

Democrats and Republicans wasted no time drawing stark battle lines for the coming fight over raising the debt limit as a top Republican dismissed out of hand the White House’s calls for a simple increase to the nation’s borrowing authority.

“We are not going to vote to raise the debt limit unless we see some guarantees” on mandatory spending caps and entitlement reform, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday.

The Virginia Republican’s pronouncement came after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama would prefer a clean debt limit bill that did not have other provisions attached to it.

Carney argued that Obama has demonstrated a willingness to deal with the debt and called on Congress to quickly pass a clean extension.

“His agreement on Friday to enact the deepest discretionary spending cuts in history has shown that he is committed to deficit reduction, and we do not need to play chicken with our economy by linking the raising of the debt ceiling to anything. We should do that right away,” Carney argued.

Almost immediately after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama agreed to a six-month continuing resolution with $38.5 billion in spending cuts, Democrats and Republicans alike looked ahead to the bigger debt limit fight.

“It’s been interesting to see the pivot here, particularly in the context of the week that the president has decided to step up,” Cantor said, pointing to Obama’s planned deficit-reduction speech Wednesday.

The shift in rhetoric for Democrats has been particularly jarring. Obama voted against a debt limit increase as a Senator, but Carney told reporters Monday that the president “regrets that vote and thinks it was a mistake. He realizes now that raising the debt ceiling is so important to the health of this economy and the global economy that it is not a vote that — even when you are protesting an administration’s policies — you can play around with, and you need to take very seriously,” Carney said.

Carney also took the first steps Monday toward painting Republicans as putting partisanship ahead of the nation’s economic needs.

“The economic impact of holding hostage the debt ceiling vote to other considerations would be catastrophic, so I think the need to move on this is quite clear,” Carney said.

Other Democrats were staking out equally strong positions. Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.) — one of the chamber’s most liberal Members — over the weekend began circulating a letter with other Democrats calling on their leadership to hold a special Caucus meeting to discuss the debt limit and urged them to stand behind the demand for a clean extension.

“The debt ceiling vote is about one thing: affirming that America pays its bills. It does not authorize new taxpayer obligations; it affirms to the world our commitment to pay obligations already incurred,” Welch wrote in the letter, which as of Monday had been signed by more than 20 Democrats.

But Republicans, who have successfully forced Democrats into a fight on their turf of fiscal conservatism, weren’t buying Democrats’ insistence.

Cantor said whether the debt limit needs to be raised is not the question for the bulk of Republicans.

“Most of my Members would say, ‘Look, the American people are expected to pay their bills, and the federal government is expected to pay its bills,’” he said. But “we are in such a fiscal mess. America is broke, and we’ve got to demonstrate some leadership here.”

Cantor and Boehner, who are expected to lead the GOP charge on the debt limit, already appear to have succeeded in shifting the debate away from whether GOP infighting would sink a debt limit vote and onto what kind of spending cuts, if any, should be attached to the final deal.

Senate Republicans see the debt limit increase as a golden opportunity to force Democrats up for re-election next year to cast tough votes, particularly on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a separate spending cap proposal from Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Democrats would continue to work with Republicans on responsible ways to cut spending while protecting the economy. But he warned the GOP against more brinkmanship.

“If we have learned anything from the budget negotiations, it’s that the American people didn’t like the GOP’s threats to shut down the government and they won’t take too kindly to threats of putting America into default, which would have a devastating effect on the global economy,” he said.

But Reid also will feel pressure from within his own party, particularly Budget Chairman Kent Conrad. The North Dakota Democrat has already said he will support only short-term increases in the debt limit to keep up the pressure  to reach a broader deficit-cutting deal.

Conrad is part of the “gang of six” — three Republicans and three Democrats — trying to hash out a compromise to slash $4 trillion from deficits over the next decade with a combination of tax reform, entitlement cuts and discretionary spending caps.

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