Debt-limit anxiety is running high

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Prolonged turmoil within the House GOP is driving up anxiety that Washington will have real trouble raising the debt limit by Nov. 5.

People aren’t jumping out of windows yet, but those following the matter closely see plenty of reason to believe Congress could miss its deadline — raising the risk of a default.

House Republicans have no ­leader following Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to resign at the end of this month.

{mosads}And the last-minute exit of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the race to succeed Boehner complicated things further, making it difficult for any potential Speaker to embrace raising the government’s $18.1 trillion borrowing limit.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress for the first time in a debt-limit standoff with President Obama. That puts more pressure on the GOP to come up with a plan, but it has not presented one so far.

The White House insists Obama will not negotiate on raising the debt limit. 

Those looking for a road map are finding it hard to come by.

“In this environment, it’s very, very difficult to get it done. The whole weight of force is behind the people who are against the debt limit,” said Francis Creighton of the Financial Services Roundtable.

Debt-limit crises are nothing new. In fact, they’ve practically defined Obama’s presidency.

Wall Street generally takes a blasé attitude for the fights. Washington has repeatedly threatened to miss raising the borrowing limit but has always been able to do so before the nation defaulted on its debt.

But this time could be different.

“They are starting to get more nervous … because of this void in leadership that no one really knows whether and how it’s going to get filled,” one lobbyist said of colleagues on K Street and Wall Street. “They’re worried not about an intentional decision to default, but just the mess of trying to figure out who’s going to lead and running out of time.”

Previous debt-limit standoffs involved entrenched political factions battling over specific policy goals. This time, there’s complete disarray over who is in charge in the House.

When the Treasury Department announced the Nov. 5 deadline, some believed it was timed for Boehner to come to the rescue: The lame-duck Speaker could move legislation raising the debt ceiling, which then could be approved on Democratic votes, the thinking went.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a leadership ally, said Boehner would be better equipped to shepherd the debt-limit vote — one of the hardest votes imaginable for Republicans — than a just-elected successor would be.

“We’ve got a known commodity in the Speaker,” Cole said of Boehner. “He doesn’t have the pressure of worrying about what he’s going to do long-term.”

It could be exceedingly tough for Boehner to act.

A weakened McCarthy would have to support bringing a debt-ceiling bill to the floor, and any would-be successor to Boehner, such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), would be under enormous pressure to reject it.

Even if Boehner were to act, he faces some difficult math.

Just 28 Republicans voted for the last debt-limit hike in February 2014, when nearly all Democrats helped it pass in a tight 221-201 vote. Nine of those 28 Republicans are no longer in Congress, raising the question of whether a similar measure could pass this time.

Retiring members can often be counted on to take unpopular votes, but only seven House Republicans have announced plans to quit Congress. And only one, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), voted for the last debt-limit extension.

Furthermore, Republicans gained 13 seats in the House in the 2014 elections, which means Boehner now would need a total of 30 Republicans to vote for a debt-limit bill if all Democrats voted yes.

Several members of GOP leadership voted against that 2014 bill, including Ryan. He also voted against the 2013 measure to end the government shutdown and raise the nation’s borrowing limit. But he voted for the 2011 Budget Control Act that created sequestration and hiked the debt ceiling.

The lack of negotiations or even opening demands in the debt-limit fight is starting to worry conservatives, who fear leadership will force a vote on a “clean” extension without any spending reforms when the clock runs out.

“There is no plan under John Boehner,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said in an interview. “They have no plan until the last minute and force it down the throats of the American people.”

Other lawmakers are hoping that Boehner, who has said he will stay on as Speaker until the House elects his successor, will find a way forward in talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Obama.

“We’re going to have to work with the existing structure in terms of the debt ceiling,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee who is eyeing his own Speaker candidacy, last week. “I think we have to work with Speaker Boehner on that.”

For now, sources on Wall Street and K Street say they want to give lawmakers some breathing room.

But they warn panic will begin to set in if there’s no clear plan when Congress returns from recess next week.

At that point, Washington will have just more than two weeks to cut a deal.

“If there continues to be disruption in the leadership positions, that concern will ratchet up very quickly,” said James Ballentine of the American Bankers Association. “Our members certainly are not taking anything for granted.”

Tags Bill Flores Boehner John Boehner Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan
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