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Democrats Fear Debt Fallout

House Democrats began bracing for the political fallout of voting for a clean debt limit hike, hours before the vote even happened.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who has long called for increasing the debt limit and pushed for a clean vote on the issue, nevertheless urged Members not to vote for Tuesday’s increase for fear they would be hit on the airwaves.

“I don’t intend to advise that my members subject themselves to a political 30-second ad and attack,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters before the floor vote.

Hoyer’s remarks amounted to political cover for a host of endangered Democrats whose districts will be targeted with attack ads from Republicans.

The fiscal conservative acknowledged as much to reporters.

“If the Republicans were prepared to work on a bipartisan basis on this issue, which is the only way we really do very tough things that are controversial, then I would be prepared to urge at least half my Members to support the extension of the debt limit, including myself,” Hoyer had warned during his weekly session with reporters. “But my advice to them will be not to play this political charade.”

In the end, the doomed debt limit proposal was defeated, with its 97 votes of support coming only from Democrats.

Democratic leaders spent the day blasting the process, charging that

Republicans were posturing to their base by calling up the vote and hammering the minority on the issue. The National Republican Congressional Committee plans to make the issue of raising the debt limit a primary focus in swing districts throughout the country.

The committee, led by Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas), has two lists of Democrats to target: those who signed a letter calling for a clean debt limit vote and those who didn’t. The NRCC immediately blasted releases Tuesday night after the final tally was called.

“Now that Republicans have called their bluff, Democrats are running for political cover because they know Americans will hold their party responsible for the endless debt and borrowing they have racked up on future generations,” NRCC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said in a statement.

The attacks mark a reversal for the NRCC, which last week was on defense following a bruising loss in a special election in upstate New York. Just as Democrats made Medicare reform a primary issue in the race, Republicans are looking to force the debt limit into every political conversation with constituents back home, positioning themselves as more responsible on fiscal matters.

A Republican campaign aide said the party also hammered Democrats on the debt limit increase in December 2009 and February 2010. Both times, the NRCC went after nearly 50 Democrats in swing districts for giving “party leaders a $300 billion blank check” and used the floor vote to paint a broader scene of reckless spending in Washington. Now, the GOP is making the debt limit issue its own headline and calling out Members for failing to curb spending.

While they were seeking cover for the issue Tuesday, Democrats also sought to show themselves to be strong on the economy by seeking bipartisan solutions to the debt problem.

Hoyer said he would continue to engage in discussions and would seek answers during his caucus’s meeting with President Barack Obama later this week.

A Democratic strategist off the Hill said the Republicans’ vote on the debt ceiling is “just another example of Republicans not taking the economic crisis seriously,” while Rep. Peter Welch said that it is no wonder Congressional approval ratings are so low given the political theatrics House Republicans are engaging in.

The Vermont Democrat, who voted for the $2.4 trillion increase, described Republicans as “transforming Washington doublespeak into triple-speak” because they introduced legislation they said they would oppose while telling Wall Street that they would eventually pass a debt limit increase.

“The legislation presents Members with a choice of casting a meaningless vote yes or a meaningless vote no,” Welch said Tuesday. “It will come and it will go; the problem we face of paying our bills and resolving our long-term deficit will remain.”