The ink had barely dried on the fiscal cliff deal before congressional Republicans started positioning themselves for the coming debt ceiling fight. The debt ceiling is a self-imposed legal limit on the amount of debt the United States can carry; when hit, Congress must raise the limit to allow the Treasury to borrow more money in order to pay budget commitments. If Congress fails to raise the debt limit, the Treasury is unable to take on more debt to pay for its obligations (including interest payments on current debt), and is forced to default, calling into question the faith and credit of the United States and shutting down non-essential government programs until the limit is lifted or money is found through other means.
Prior to 2011, the debt ceiling had never been used as political leverage (as a default on debt would be disastrous for world financial markets). In fact, Republicans had voted to raise the debt ceiling 19 times under President George W. Bush, totaling $4 trillion in debt. After last summer’s fiasco, some pundits thought that Republicans would avoid playing hostage games with the national debt for fear of again being forced to concede their position under public pressure (the Wall Street Journal recommended the GOP not “take a hostage you aren’t prepared to shoot”).
However, Republicans seem to have ignored the advice and fully intend to use the debt ceiling as leverage to force some cuts from the Obama administration, especially after failing to secure any in the fiscal cliff agreement. Here are eight Republicans that have a great deal of interest in leveraging the debt ceiling politically to try and get some spending cuts and political capital out of the debt ceiling:
1. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)
Having been recently forced in between a rock and a hard place in the fiscal cliff deal, Boehner will be looking for any opportunity to shore up his conservative credentials and consolidate his leadership over a fractured House GOP.
Boehner openly told his caucus last Friday that he was willing to use the debt ceiling fight as leverage to extract as many possible cuts as possible out of the president. Pointing to a poll showing that 72% of Americans “agree any increase in the nation’s debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount,” Boehner made the case that this was the GOP’s opportunity to get the cuts they failed to get in the fiscal cliff deal.
2. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
McConnell has been pilloried by the right for his failure to get any meaningful spending cuts in the fiscal cliff deal and he knows it. The day after the fiscal cliff deal was signed, McConnell took to the floor of the Senate to say that the debt debate began immediately and penned an op-ed stating that the fight over taxes “is over” and that the conversation must “turn to cutting spending on the government programs that are the real source of the national fiscal imbalance.”
McConnell hasn’t pulled punches in the past, most infamously with his stated goal that the GOP’s top legislative priority was to make Obama a one-term president, so his staking out the position that the debt ceiling will only go up in exchange for spending cuts is one to take seriously.
3. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
There is little question where Cantor stands on the issue of the debt ceiling. The de facto leader of the Tea Party Republicans in the House, Cantor opposed Boehner on the fiscal cliff deal, both in caucus and in the final vote.
As far back as November, Cantor was already stating that this year’s debt limit increase must be accompanied by entitlement reform. Cantor is playing the long game, positioning himself to take over as the next speaker, so look for Cantor to continue being the outspoken leader of the far-right elements of the House over the next two months of negotiations.
4. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas)
Senator Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has been one of the Republicans leading the public charge against raising the debt ceiling. In an op-ed published the day after the fiscal cliff deal was signed, Cornyn stated that “Republicans are more determined than ever to implement the spending cuts and structural entitlement reforms that are needed to secure the long-term fiscal integrity of our country.”
Cornyn focused his political ire at Obama, accusing the president of “already signal[ing] an unwillingness to negotiate over the debt ceiling.” Cornyn made clear that Obama must come to the table with serious spending cuts and entitlement reforms if he hopes to get Republicans to vote for a debt ceiling increase.
As the Republican in charge of securing GOP votes, Cornyn will be very eager to make up for what many conservatives consider a knife in the back in the form of the fiscal cliff vote to raise taxes on wealthy Americans. It’s no accident Cornyn had the op-ed ready to go immediately after the vote and Democrats can expect his rhetoric to heat up as the deadline gets closer.
5. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
The newly sworn in junior Senator from Texas will undoubtedly stand shoulder to shoulder with his senior Texas colleague Cornyn in opposing a clean debt ceiling hike. The Tea Party darling that has already spoken of the need for revolutionary change for congressional conservatives has made his position abundantly clear.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Cruz called the fiscal cliff “a lousy deal” and stated that “I think those who believe in limited spending and solving the debt and not bankrupting our kids have the advantage in the negotiation on the debt ceiling.” Cruz continued, saying that “if we can stand strong and insist on, number one, structural reforms to fix the problems and; number two, pro-growth policies, so we can grow the economy, we can get jobs back, we can get people back to work. I think we can win that debate and win that argument.”
Perhaps most telling of what role Cruz may play in the upcoming debt ceiling debate, he concluded by saying that “I don't think what Washington needs is more compromise.”
6. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
Son of outgoing libertarian hero Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Senator Paul is the stubborn and aggressive young voice of the Tea Party in the Senate. Paul was outspoken in his opposition to last year’s debt ceiling deal, threatening a filibuster that never came to fruition. Paul has already stated that he would only vote for the debt ceiling if it included a Balanced Budget Amendment.
With rumors of a potential 2016 run swirling, Paul will likely see this newest fight as an opportunity to further bolster his conservative credentials by opposing anything short of his perfect deal.
7. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Conservative and Tea Party darling and likely 2016 candidate Marco Rubio is expected to be a leading voice in the debt ceiling debate as he establishes himself as one of the top voices for Tea Partiers in the Senate.
Rubio was one of eight senators who voted against the fiscal cliff deal on New Year’s Day and his vote is expected to be similar on any increase of the debt ceiling that doesn’t include significant reforms. "Rapid economic growth and spending reforms are the only way out of the real fiscal cliff our nation is facing,” said Rubio in a statement following the fiscal cliff vote. “But rapid economic growth and job creation will be made more difficult under the deal reached here in Washington."
Rubio publicly and openly opposed raising the debt limit the last time around and can be expected to do more of the same to score political points among the still fractured congressional Republicans.
8. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.)
First term senator Pat Toomey seemed very grumpy about the fiscal cliff deal, even though he voted for it. In an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe following the deal, Toomey focused on the upcoming debt ceiling fight in saying that “we Republicans need to be willing to tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown” in order to get spending cuts and or entitlement reform.
Confronted with the potential fallout of even a temporary government shutdown, Toomey responded that financial markets would suffer less from a “temporary disruption” like shutting down the government that they would if leaders in Washington continue to avoid addressing debt and deficit issues.
Toomey further disagreed with the idea that raising the debt ceiling only allows the government to pay debts it has already obligated itself to pay via the budget. “It's to enable him to engage in the future spending that he wants,” said Toomey, referring to the president.