WASHINGTON (AP) — Stand by for one of the nastiest and, perhaps most economically dangerous U.S. political fights in recent memory. Congress returns to the capital this month with stark battle lines drawn on spending issues that, if left unresolved, could shove the United States into defaulting on its debt for the first time or force the government to shut down for lack of funding.
Conservative Republicans threaten one or both unless Democrats and the White House surrender to right wing demands to slash spending for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
While there is an internal debate in the Republican party over how to proceed, a growing number of legislators are concerned about what they perceive as overspending by the government, and are determined to refuse action on the debt ceiling or the budget without major spending cuts from Democrats.
The fight also concerns cuts that already have sliced huge chunks out of the defense spending, a burr under the saddle of Republicans, and government-funded social programs, part of the Democrats’ political catechism.
Congressional action is needed to lift those cuts, which were part of a 2011 deal that sidestepped debt default two years ago. Those reductions run through 2021, but were intended to be so onerous to both political parties that they would be forced to compromise. That never happened as the nation’s capital fell into the grip of a partisan stalemate not seen in decades.
Efforts to bridge the chasm during the August legislative break proven a fool’s errand, with neither side any closer to a big deal that would reduce the nation’s deficit – the issue drives all others when it comes to any agreement on taxes and spending by an increasingly unpopular Washington government.
The White House says it will not negotiate over health care reforms, period. Here’s what’s at stake as soon as Congress returns on Sept. 9. First, the federal budget year ends on Sept. 30, and there is no agreement between members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled Senate on a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Without a deal on a new spending plan or at least an agreement to temporarily continue funding at current levels, the government would be forced to shut down. That happened in the mid-1990s when Bill Clinton was president, and it cost opposition Republicans dearly.
Then, within a couple of weeks, the government will reach its limit on borrowing, known as the debt limit. Unless Congress agrees to raise that limit, the government would likely default on some of its debt, which would be a first in the country’s history. Until Obama was elected president in 2008, raising the debt limit was a matter of course. But Republican threats to block the increase in 2010, when they had regained control of the House, caused one of the global rating institutions to lower U.S. government creditworthiness for the first time.
The primary Republican target this time is Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the overhaul of the U.S. health care system. Republican legislators are threatening to impose a government shutdown over the budget or to nix a rise in the borrowing limit and force a debt default if Democrats and Obama do not knuckle under opposition calls to slash spending for the health care law.
Much of that law begins taking effect later this year and early in 2014. House Republicans have already taken 40 votes to repeal or cut funding for the overhaul, moves that were never taken up in the Senate and would have been vetoed out of hand by Obama.
The health care law forces all Americans to buy health insurance – offering government subsidies to low income citizens – and Republicans philosophically view that as wrongful government intrusion into private decision-making. That part of the law is what will help finance its regulations that will provide insurance to tens of millions of Americans who now are uninsured or who can’t buy coverage because they already have a medical condition.
Some Republicans are so opposed to such programs that they would like to see major cuts in the government’s longstanding Social Security old-age pension system and the government-run Medicare health insurance program for Americans over age 65.
While more moderate Republicans in both legislative chambers are believed to oppose such drastic tactics, those in leadership positions such as Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, are seen as captive to the growing power of the so-called tea party faction in their party, which is made up of legislators determined to cut taxes, shrink government spending and eliminate federal indebtedness.
That leaves Democrats like Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who is assistant majority leader and whip, hoping, perhaps against hope, for a change of heart among some of the opposition.
“The only hope I have is that the Republicans realize they tried this initially and the American people rejected it completely,” he said. “Congress in general has a very low approval rating, but Republicans in Congress are even lower than Democrats.”
To hear Boehner, that’s not the case.
“I wish I could tell you it was going to be pretty and polite, and it would all be finished a month before we’d ever get to the debt ceiling. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way,” he said on his swing through very conservative Idaho.