Debt Ceiling 2013: Why the Republicans Can Still Shut Down the Government


It is rather unlikely to see the House Republicans hold any leverage with the debt ceiling negotiations. On January 23, the House approved plans to increase the debt ceiling without any spending cuts, avoiding the normal political brinksmanship in D.C. The deal is pretty much done, just waiting for approval from the elated Democratic-held Senate. Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) released a statement announcing House plans to authorize a three-month temporary debt limit increase, giving the Senate more time to craft a budget focused on spending cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) initial position was to hold the debt-ceiling hostage during partisan politics. Shortly before the Senate vote to raise the debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion, McConnell said, "never again will any president, from either party, be allowed to raise the debt ceiling without being held accountable for it by the American people and without having to engage in the kind of debate we've just come through." And with President Obama equating McConnell's comments to the equivalent of a hostage taking holding onto the global economy, partisan political bickering has shaped the conversation in D.C.

However, the tides have continued to shift over the past few weeks as Republicans begin to re-evaluate the feasibility, or infeasibility, of their positions. While the debt ceiling was set to become an agenda item again in March 2013, the reality about a lack of overlap between spending cuts and raising the debt ceiling is becoming more apparent. The Senate's No. 2 Republican, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has come out saying, "we will raise the debt ceiling. We're not going to default on our debt. I will tell you unequivocally, we're not going to default." This statement comes two weeks after Coryn published an op-ed where he threatened not to raise the debt ceiling if Obama did not agree to cut back spending for key government entitlement programs including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

With President Obama and Democrats firm in their stance on raising the debt ceiling without any concessions in terms of spending cuts, the GOP has been forced to assess the feasibility of their plans. Obama has placed the blame on House Republicans, stating that a failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in deep cuts to popular government programs and services. Recipients of key government programs, including Social Security and Medicare, comprise a significant voting bloc and stakeholder group, giving Obama and Democrats additional leverage to push for a debt ceiling raise without controversy or spending cuts.

The House voted on Wednesday, February 23 to suspend enforcement of the federal debt limit until May 18, buying policy-makers additional time and breathing room after the 11th hour negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff. This extension had bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) greeted the proposal with support, emphasizing his relief that there was no impending crisis in a matter of days. Similarly, while Obama would prefer a long-term extension of the Treasury Department's borrowing authority, the White House said in a statement that the president "would not oppose" the temporary measure to extend the debt ceiling.

Now that lawmakers in D.C. have approved the GOP-sponsored measure without supporting spending cuts, the debt ceiling debate will be put off until May. However, work in D.C. is nowhere near complete as lawmakers, in Congress and the Senate, have two serious deadlines looming over the country – sharp automatic cuts to government spending on March 1 and a potential government shutdown on March 27. After a rather successful negotiation by Democrats to avert the fiscal cliff, Obama and his party appear to have won the debt ceiling debate without offering up any spending cuts. But we will likely see things continue with political bickering over the coming months into May.