Debt-limit battle puts GOP in strong position on budget cuts

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President Barack Obama and the Republicans are far apart on raising the debt limit. They’ve been divided before on spending and debt issues since Republicans captured the House and added Senate seats in last November’s election. This time, the Republicans have more leverage.

When temporary spending bills were negotiated earlier this year, Republicans were at a disadvantage. Either the president or the Democratic Senate could block spending cuts approved by the House. Indeed the Senate has done just that, notably blocking an entire 2012 budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan and passed in the House.

House Republicans, eager for bigger cuts, have become increasingly frustrated with this state of affairs. On the three spending measures, the number of no votes has risen from six to 54 to 59. And sentiment among Republicans against raising the debt limit is greater still.

Obama needs House approval of an increase or his administration cannot borrow more to pay off the government’s creditors. The White House initially sought to have a hike in the debt limit ratified by Congress with no concessions on the president’s part. More recently he’s acknowledged he must go along with spending cuts to attract Republican votes.

Republicans aren’t Obama’s only problem. Public opinion is running strongly against boosting the debt limit, and not just among Republicans. In a Resurgent Republic poll, independents (64 to 31 percent) and Democrats (50 to 42 percent) believe spending cuts should be tied to the debt limit.

Both House Speaker Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell insist the president must agree to “trillions” in spending cuts before they’ll support a debt-limit increase. Obama may not like this, but in his budget speech last month he proposed $2 trillion in cuts over 12 years. His proposal was vague and may not have been entirely serious, but that was his number. Now Republicans are demanding he agree not only to specific cuts of that size, but to reductions and spending caps and entitlement reforms to their liking.

Obama’s best argument, one he cited in his session with Republican senators, is that the government will default on its debt unless the limit is raised, causing an economic collapse. McConnell, for one, is not impressed with this.

The idea the Obama administration will default is “nonsense,” he told me. “They’re not going to default. No treasury secretary is going to default.” McConnell was referring to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who says the government will run out of money to pay debts on Aug. 2.

Republicans are united on the requirement for spending cuts. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican whip, says there’s “not one Republican vote” for increasing the limit “where no cuts are proposed.” All 47 Senate Republicans are likely to follow McConnell’s lead.

Did Obama get the message? Republican senators aren’t sure. But McConnell couldn’t be clearer. “There is going to be a big package [of cuts] or we’ll still be arguing about the debt ceiling this fall,” he said. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t kidding.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article is adapted from.

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