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GOP wants deep cuts before raising U.S. debt limit

Republican leaders are under pressure from 'tea party' conservatives who campaigned against the federal debt.

February 07, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

But persuading rank-and-file conservatives who campaigned against perceived wasteful spending is another matter. Republican leaders have been holding "listening sessions" to engage and educate the new lawmakers — many of whom have never held elective office — on the seriousness of the debt-limit vote.

In these private talks — as well as in public statements tailored to conservative voters — GOP leaders frame the vote as necessary to pay for overspending by wayward predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Moving forward, Republican leaders vow, budgets will be slashed.

Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House appropriations panel, promises that the spending proposal he will unveil this week for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year "will represent the largest series of spending cuts in the history of Congress." Additional cuts to the 2012 budget will be proposed later this year.

This is not the first time a debt-limit vote has been used as a political tool. When Republicans held the congressional majority in 2006, every Democratic senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. In casting his no vote, then-Sen. Barack Obama said the request was a "sign of leadership failure."

Budget hawks lament that the conversation in Congress fails to address the country's worsening fiscal outlook.

Annual deficits consume 9.8% of gross domestic product — among the highest since World War II — and contribute to what the bipartisan fiscal commission's recent report called an unsustainable debt path.

Cutting as much as $100 billion from the annual budget offers a modest improvement in balance sheets, the hawks say. But a more substantial overhaul to both the revenue and expenditure sides of the ledger would be necessary to avert a debt crisis. That would require a politically difficult reconsideration of the tax code, defense spending, Social Security and Medicare.

"We're putting all this focus and attention on basically what economists tell us is a sideshow," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the banking panel. "What I am worried about is waltzing up to the debt limit and not having a long-term plan, because then I think we could get into real dangerous territory."

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