The Campaign to Save the Debt Limit

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 5 2012 2:33 PM

The Campaign to Save the Debt Limit

Yesterday, as he told conservatives the tale of his purge from key committees, Rep. Tim Huelskamp warned that Barack Obama was coming after the debt limit. In his first serious offer of the "fiscal cliff" negotiation, the president asked for the debt limit to be eliminated, full stop, as part of a deal. "That's the only leverage we have for four years," said Huelskamp.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It does sound like a complete dealbreaker, but it's barely being discussed. At a pro forma "27 days left!" press conference today, Democratic senators were asked whether they needed a permanent debt limit hike in a cliff deal. Wouldn't they lose their leverage without it? Wouldn't they be in the position, in February 2013 or so, of acceding to more Republican cuts?

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"I don't see how that would be the case at all," shrugged Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

"I think they learned their lesson with the debt ceiling," said Sen. Chuck Schumer. "I don't think it's leverage for them at all. The whole thing turned around in 2011 when it looked like they might let the U.S. default on its debt obligations. The whole thing turned around and we began to get the upper hand."

Just an hour later, some Republicans who'd gotten word of this announced their counter-counter threat. Rep. Jon Fleming and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, two relative backbenchers, told reporters that they were gathering signatures for a debt limit resolution so fresh and hot that it didn't have an official name yet. The non-binding proposal, which hadn't yet been shown to leadership, put it as "resolved" that "the Congress should retain its authority vested in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution to 'borrow money on the credit of the United States."

Reporters quickly saw the problem with this. The White House isn't asking the Congress to give up its powers to spend or issue debt. It's asking that the debt limit, a relatively recent invention, be eliminated. The debt will go as high as Congress determines, but there'll be no more votes to extend the borrowing authority.

"Have you ever seen us not borrow up to the debt limit?" said Lummis, after a reporter pointed this out.

"Yes, but that wouldn't be the president's fault," said the reporter. "It would be the Congress's fault."

"That's exactly right," she said. "It's also a check on the Congress."

In 2011, Republicans helped push the White House back on threats to just ignore the debt limit by arguing the constitutionality of that move. I asked Fleming whether the White House's new demand was constitutional.

"It's constitutional if we give it to him," he said. "That is by admission on his part that it is our privilege, our power, under the Constitution. He just wants us to turn it over to him."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.