It’s the stuff ominous political television ads are made of: “Congressman X voted to increase the debt to $17.8 trillion.”
In less than two weeks, the federal government — shutdown or no — is set to exhaust its congressional authority to borrow money. A vote to increase the debt ceiling is necessary to avoid a market-rattling default on bills it has already racked up.
For the three Georgia Republican U.S. House members seeking to join the U.S. Senate — Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston — such a vote is fraught with peril, even as they recognize that the debt ceiling must increase. For their foes not holding elected office, it could pose a political opportunity.
No GOP plans have been put forth, though it is becoming increasingly likely that legislation to raise the debt limit by Oct. 17 will include a way to end the partial government shutdown that enters its fifth day Saturday.
The five most prominent GOP candidates in the Senate race all expressed similar sentiments when asked recently about the debt ceiling: They would consider raising it if there are strings attached such as long-term budget savings.
But there is no doubt the debt limit will arise as a political wedge as the race for retiring U.S. Saxby Chambliss’ seat heats up ahead of the Republican primary in May.
“Those of us who’ve been here for a while and have had to vote for a debt ceiling, it’s something you’re going to get dinged on — period,” said Kingston, a Savannah Republican first elected to Congress in 1992.
“There’s just no way around it,” he said, “but that’s part of being an incumbent, part of governing that you have to make tough votes.”
Joining Kingston, Broun and Gingrey in the crowded primary are former Secretary of State Karen Handel, former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, businessman Eugene Yu and minister Derrick Grayson.
Congress has always restricted how much the federal government can borrow, with the debt ceiling created as a specific amount in 1917. In essence, the debt limit is a second bite at the apple since Congress has already authorized the spending.
In the past century, debt ceiling hikes have occasionally been used to forge budget accords since they are must-pass votes.
They also offer the opportunity for grandstanding. When Barack Obama was a U.S. senator, he voted against raising the debt limit in 2006 in protest of President George W. Bush’s budget policy. As president, he now insists on a debt ceiling hike without preconditions.
A CNN poll taken last weekend showed the political conundrum, particularly for Republicans. Nationwide, 56 percent of respondents said it would be a bad thing if the debt ceiling is not raised, while 38 percent said it would be a good thing.
Among Republicans, 52 percent said it would be a good thing, with 40 percent saying it would be a bad thing. Among supporters of the tea party movement, 64 percent said it would be a good thing not to raise the debt limit, with just 29 percent saying it would be a bad thing.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, said raising the debt limit scores better when the pollster explains that it has to do with the government paying its bills, and the Republican opposition likely comes from dislike of Obama.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster whose firm is working for Handel, said he expected the issue to arise in Georgia.
“People hate raising the debt ceiling,” Ayres said, “particularly when they feel like we’re already bumping up against our credit limit. The problem is the consequences of not raising it are worse if it leads to default on our debt and a downgrading in our credit rating.”
Asked how Handel would vote, spokesman Dan McLagan said, “Karen believes that the debt limit must be tied to commensurate budget cuts.”
Perdue, the first cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, said he wants the debt ceiling deadline to spark “a real bipartisan effort to get at the huge crux of this thing.”
He said talks to increase the debt ceiling must include economic growth initiatives in addition to just taxes and spending figures.
“I think the brinkmanship is absolutely wrong on both parties,” Perdue said. “What they really need to be doing is starting right now.”
The three House members in the Senate race will have a chance soon to vote on a debt ceiling increase.
All three voted against the 2011 Budget Control Act, which escaped a near-breach of the debt ceiling by agreeing to $2.1 trillion in spending cuts. Merely getting close to a default damaged the financial markets and consumer confidence, resulting in a credit downgrade for the federal government by Standard & Poor’s.
Congress voted in January to increase the debt limit to its current level of $16.7 trillion with the demand that each chamber of Congress pass a budget or else members’ pay would be withheld. Kingston was the only one of the trio to back the plan, which helped nudge the Senate to pass a budget, though it is not close to becoming law.
Gingrey, of Marietta, favored a 2011 GOP plan to raise the debt ceiling that required a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He said he was open to looking at ideas put forth by House Speaker John Boehner that would attach economic growth initiatives to a debt ceiling hike.
He also said any debt limit increase must make clear that it will not send more money to China, but is intended “to pay the interest on our current debt and to purchase the bonds that are coming due, that sort of thing.”
Broun, of Athens, boasts that he’s never voted to increase the debt ceiling. In 2011 he introduced a bill to lower the debt ceiling, which had no earthly chance of becoming law but was meant to show he was an anti-debt crusader.
Still, he would not totally rule it out. His demands start with the issue driving the current government shutdown.
“If we totally defund and delay the implementation of Obamacare,” Broun said, “that would make me start thinking about it.”