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New Year Likely To Ring In Old Debt Ceiling Fight

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (right), accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, takes reporters' questions during a Dec. 11 news conference.
J. Scott Applewhite
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (right), accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, takes reporters' questions during a Dec. 11 news conference.

At the moment, Washington fiscal policy is a good news, bad news story.

The good news is that the budget agreement, overwhelmingly passed by the House last week in a bipartisan vote, is likely to be approved by the Senate this week. That takes another costly government shutdown off the table.

The bad news? Another debt ceiling fight, with all the attendant risks of a U.S. government default, appears to be right around the corner.

Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who was lead GOP negotiator on the pending budget deal, raised the specter of another debt ceiling standoff over the weekend when he said on Fox News Sunday: "We don't want nothing out of this debt limit. We're going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt limit fight."

Notice that he said "fight." He's not mincing words.

That's consistent with what Ryan has said before. During the government shutdown, when Republicans were seeking an exit from that morass, Ryan wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the debt ceiling was where the fight over spending cuts should be waged. That was the case he made to fellow Republican House members as well.

All the while, he rejected President Obama's repeatedly stated position that there would be no negotiating over the debt ceiling, saying other presidents — including Obama — had set precedents by engaging in debt ceiling horse trading.

It's unlikely Ryan will back down from this position. One reason he was able to sell the present two-year budget deal to the Republican conference was that he had credibility as a fiscal conservative who has pushed hard for entitlement reform and against tax increase.

Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is still thought to have ambitions for either the White House or House speakership. For that reason, it's unlikely he would go out of his way to antagonize conservatives.

That places him on a collision course with the White House, where press secretary Jay Carney on Monday yet again repeated that the president doesn't intend to negotiate over the debt ceiling.

"We have not and will not change our position, nor do we expect Republicans to travel down that road again, because one, so many of them have said they won't, including those who endorsed the approach in October, and two, because that approach and pursuit was so disastrous for them and for the economy and for the middle class," Carney said.

"So, you know, I'm not going to anticipate a decision by Republicans to do that again, to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States, because we don't believe they — obviously, that they should, and nor do we believe that they will. The president's position has not and will not change."

So there it is: Ryan says there will be no clean debt ceiling bill if Republicans have anything to say about it, and the administration says negotiations over the debt ceiling are a nonstarter. It's a perfect recipe for another default scare early in a midterm election year, sometime in March to be somewhat more precise.

That happens to be right about when the 2014 primary season gets underway. Which means many Republicans will be under maximum grass-roots pressure to vote against a clean debt ceiling.

So if the two-year budget agreement represented a break in the partisan clouds that have long hung over the nation's capital, it is likely to be only the briefest of openings.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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