John Boehner, a Republican Congressman from Ohio, gets sworn in tomorrow as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the most powerful positions in the world. He will have to show, almost at once, if he has the stuff for the job.
Currently, the federal debt is at $13.7 trillion, and the debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion. Soon, the federal government will hit that ceiling and begin to default on its commitments, unless Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling.
Congress did so last year, in February, raising the limit from $12.4 trillion to $14.3 trillion. It was not a controversial vote, but all indications are that it will be this year, and that it will try Boehner's leadership skills.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-MN, a darling of the conservative tea party movement is gathering signatures on a petition to oppose raising the debt ceiling. When it was pointed out to her that not raising the debt ceiling would mean government default on payments due, as well as a government shutdown because of lack of funds, Bachmann said she and her allies are not looking to shut the government down, no one benefits.
Bachmann appears to be taking part in some blatant political blackmail, trying to force Democrats to agree to spending cuts before Republicans will vote with them to raise the debt ceiling.
She called upon Democrats to now be a part of trying to figure out how we can be responsible.
Rep. Eric Cantor, who will become House Majority Leader tomorrow, second in command to Boehner, said numerous times throughout last year's political campaigns that he would tie support for raising the debt limit to spending cuts. Freshman Republican Congressman Allen West of Florida, a tea party Congressman, recently said that his support for raising the debt ceiling would be based on spending cuts.
Boehner, too, like all Republicans and a number of Democrats, is for a reduction in government spending, but he does not appear to be in favor of using the debt ceiling vote to try to force Democrats into the sort of enormous cuts conservative Republicans are looking for.
According to Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, GOP lawmakers are going after approximately $100 billion in spending cuts this year.
Boehner, shortly after the Republican election landslide in November, addressed freshman Congress members regarding the debt ceiling issue.
We're going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part, Boehner said.
The White House, for its part, is painting the notion of making the debt ceiling vote a battleground as unstable thinking.
This is not a game, said Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, in a recent televised interview. You know, the debt ceiling is not something to toy with. If we hit the debt ceiling, that's essentially defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history. The impact on the economy would be catastrophic. That would be a worse financial economic crisis than anything we saw in 2008.
Goolsbee added, I don't see why anybody's talking about playing chicken with the debt ceiling. If we get to the point where you've damaged the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, echoed both Goolsbee and Boehner when he said the vote on the debt limit was an adult game and the risks are pretty high.
I think the Republicans have come in saying that they're going to not raise the debt ceiling and they're going to allow the full faith and credit of the American people go down the tubes, Weiner said in a televised interview.
Last November, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, serving as co-chair of the President's debt commission, predicted a political bloodbath on the debt ceiling issue.
When debt-limit time comes, they're going to look around and say, 'What in the hell do we do now?' Simpson said. We've got guys who will not approve the debt-limit extension unless we give 'em a piece of meat, real meat.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, and a leader of tea party conservatives in the Senate, is eager for the fight.
We need to have a showdown at this point that we are not going to increase our debt ceiling anymore. We are going to cut spending necessary to stay within the current levels, which is over $14 trillion. This needs to be a big showdown, DeMint said, according to a published report.
Other Republican senators, like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, are echoing DeMint.
But the Republicans are a minority in the Senate. It is in the House where the GOP can truly muck things up for the administration and government finances.
What will happen and what will Boehner do?
PPI's Marshall predicted that Boehner will manage his rank and file and the House will vote to raise the debt ceiling.
House Democrats will vote to raise the limit and Boehner will find enough Republicans to also back the measure and it will pass, Marshall said.
The new Speaker will give his young Turks' their opportunity to vote against the measure, while more established Republicans will vote for it, because the party does not want to be responsible for shutting down the government or making it impossible for the U.S. to borrow money, Marshall said.
Boehner will have shown leadership if he can say, 'We held our noses and did what we had to do. Now, you Democrats will have to come up with some real budget cuts,' Marshall said, noting that Obama is planning cuts for budget proposal, although nowhere as drastic as Republican ideas.
A vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling could come within the first few weeks of the new Congress.