Debt-limit standoff: 10 things to watch

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are strategizing for what is expected to be a bruising debate on raising the nation’s debt limit and reining in government spending.

The Obama administration has set an early-July deadline for lifting the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a move that congressional leaders agree must be done.

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But some Tea Party lawmakers have vowed to reject any bill that calls for more borrowing, while liberal legislators are threatening to oppose cutbacks to Medicare, Medicaid and/or Social Security. Attracting enough “yes” votes for passage will be extremely challenging for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Political analysts contend the negotiations, and the ultimate remedy, could have far-reaching implications for the 2012 elections.

The following are 10 things to watch for during the contentious debate.

1. The Gang of Six. 

The bipartisan group of lawmakers might soon be playing a leading role in the debt-ceiling talks, or it could be completely irrelevant. If the three Democrats (Sens. Kent Conrad, N.D., Dick Durbin, Ill., and Mark Warner, Va.) and three Republicans (Sens. Tom Coburn, Okla., Saxby Chambliss, Ga., and Mike Crapo, Idaho) agree on a plan to attack the nation’s debt problem, it could quickly gather momentum. However, any such proposal would surely attract criticism from both the left and the right.

2. The liberals in Congress. 

Many Democrats in Congress have called for a “clean” extension of the debt ceiling, something President Obama also initially endorsed. Yet Obama has since softened his stance, knowing Republicans will not pass a debt-ceiling hike without major strings attached. Liberals are very concerned that the Gang of Six will call for major changes to Social Security, which the president and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) dodged in their respective entitlement reform blueprints.

3. What the GOP wants. 

Congressional Republicans have suggested they have a long wish list of spending cuts. But they haven’t said what they want, which has worried some prominent Republicans, including Karl Rove. In a recent interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, Rove said he was “amazed” to learn that House and Senate Republican leaders had not been communicating on the matter.

Some issues that are on the table include a balanced-budget amendment, spending caps proposed by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and major changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

4. How much, and for how long. 

The debt ceiling is approaching $14.3 trillion, and rising. Obama has called on Congress to lift the debt by $2.2 trillion, and under his budget request, another debt-ceiling move would not be necessary until after the 2012 election. House Republicans, meanwhile, have called for a smaller debt-limit increase aimed to last until October of next year. Some conservatives have called for more than one debt-limit boost in this Congress, arguing the strategy would give Republicans more leverage and thus lead to more spending cuts from the White House. On the other hand, these negotiations are expected to be politically explosive. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle will probably want to avoid a similar showdown before the elections.

5. Presidential politics. 

Raising the debt ceiling is never popular, and it’s a good bet that most of the 2012 White House hopefuls will come out against any bipartisan deal. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), who are both eyeing runs for president, are sure “no” votes. In all likelihood, the eventual Republican nominee will criticize Obama for raising the debt limit, and the president will have to defend whatever agreement is reached.

6. The conservatives in the Senate. 

If there is a Gang of Six deal, it will, in all likelihood, call for tax increases. That won’t sit well with the right, most notably Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist and Coburn have been sniping at each other through the media, and that friction could intensify in the coming weeks. A few conservative senators, including Mike Lee (R-Utah), have indicated they might filibuster a debt-ceiling measure. That would require a 60-vote threshold to pass, which would be extremely difficult to reach on such a contentious issue.

7. The Boehner-Geithner 

relationship. This could be a bit awkward. Last summer, Boehner publicly called on Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The White House promptly fired back at Boehner, and now Geithner and Boehner will have to iron out an accord, or the U.S. could default on its loans. Geithner, who has been a regular on the Sunday shows in recent weeks, has called the default scenario “catastrophic.”

8. The Biden commission. 

The big question that surrounds this commission is: How relevant will it be? Republicans initially ripped Obama’s call for another commission to deal with the deficit, but subsequently decided to participate in the discussions. The president wanted 16 members of Congress to serve, though after some wrangling, only six members were tapped by congressional leaders. The four Democrats are Sens. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Max Baucus (Mont.) and Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.). The two Republicans are Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.). House Democrats are worried they will get shut out again, as they were late last year when the White House struck a deal with Republicans on extending the George W. Bush tax rates.

9. The Hoyer-Pelosi dynamic.

 House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) voted for the spending deal that averted a government shutdown earlier this month, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected it. Hoyer, along with Obama, has said his 2006 vote against raising the debt-ceiling limit was a mistake. Pelosi has not. The liberal-leaning House Democratic Caucus stood by Pelosi after the 2010 electoral drubbing, but many centrists — including those who opted not to vote for Pelosi for Speaker in January — appear to be following Hoyer.

10. Members facing tough reelections.

 Usually, the onus on the debt ceiling falls on the majority party. For example, not one Republican voted to increase the debt ceiling when Democrats controlled both chambers in 2010. With divided government, the votes will be less predictable this year. And in order to pass a bill, some members facing tough races back home will have to vote “yes.” There will be enormous pressure on Republicans facing primary challenges to vote “no,” including Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah). Politically vulnerable Republicans and Democrats will also have to be persuaded (or strong-armed) by their leaders because the safe vote, campaign operatives say, is to vote “no” on such a politically unpopular bill.