Republicans coming to grips with debt ceiling

BALTIMORE -- House Republicans gathered here Friday signaled that they expect an agreement within their ranks to boost the national debt ceiling this spring. But they said they will present the move as evidence of a responsible new majority determined to fix problems, and will use it as leverage for spending cuts.

"The decision about the debt ceiling is a decision about bills that have been incurred already," emphasized Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, the House chief deputy majority whip. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California sounded the same theme: "We inherited that debt; now what are we going to do about it?"

"We don't have a choice," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla. "If we don't get our financial affairs in order, you'll have what you see in Europe."

The nation's massive debt was a main topic of a closed-door meeting Friday morning, which included remarks from former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republicans are continuing their three-day policy retreat at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel through Saturday.

The nation has $13.95 trillion in outstanding debt and is running monthly deficits of about $100 billion. Under current law, the government can borrow up to $14.3 trillion -- a ceiling that will be hit, at the current rate, sometime in the spring. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned Congress last week that causing the United States to default by not raising the ceiling would have "catastrophic consequences that would last for decades."

But some of the new House GOP majority's 84 freshmen -- including those riding the wave of tea party anger -- made an issue of Democrats going along with past hikes in the debt ceiling and promised to oppose another.

As a result, a debt ceiling vote has been expected to be a contentious initial test of whether Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, can bring his 242-member conference in line.

Boehner and other Republican leaders have tried to quell any mutiny. "We're going to have to deal with it as adults," Boehner has said of the looming debt ceiling hike. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part."

But last week, Boehner also insisted that he and his House Republican majority will not go along with raising the debt ceiling unless there is some meaningful action to cut spending.

And that seemed to be the key talking point as the GOP lawmakers emerged from their morning session in Baltimore. Most indicated they and their colleagues are prepared to do what's necessary to deal with the nation's debt problems, but emphasized that they were problems the Republicans have inherited.

In an oft-repeated refrain, House GOP freshman Allen West of Florida said he will continue to refuse to "just raise the debt ceiling," and that it must be accompanied by "some signs of fiscal responsibility," such as curbs in federal spending. Rooney said Republicans will "signal to the American people that we have to do this to honor our obligations, but only so much as to honor our obligations," and that at the same time they will "show people we are changing course."

Still to be determined, Rooney added: Specifics such as "the bare minimum" needed, how long such a move can be put off, "and what we can do before that to show where we are" in terms of commitments to cut spending.

Added Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich.: "With the particular vote, we obviously want to be able to use that as leverage to make sure President Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate understand we would never do that unless there was a huge amount of spending decrease."

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