Will Republicans Pick a Fight Over the Debt Limit?

Paul Ryan's remarks raise the specter of another bruising budget fight early next year

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Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Representative Paul Ryan

Weary veterans of Washington’s budget battles hoped they were finished. But mere hours after House budget chairman Paul Ryan signed a deal to avert another government shutdown, he raised the possibility of another bruising fight early next year.

“We as a caucus, along with our Senate counterparts, are going to meet and discuss what it is we want to get out of the debt limit,” Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit. We’re going to decide what it is we can accomplish out of this debt-limit fight.”

The federal government is set to exhaust its borrowing authority on Feb. 7, though the Treasury Department can use accounting gimmicks to stretch its funds a little further. Without a deal to lift the debt ceiling, the U.S. would eventually run the risk of default. Economists and leaders of both parties believe a debt-limit breach would be far more damaging to the U.S. economy than the partial government shutdown that stunted economic growth this fall.

Ryan’s signal that the fiscal fights may not be over startled some Capitol Hill Democrats. They saw the modest deal he reached with Democratic Senator Patty Murray as a sign of mutual disarmament in the budget wars — only to learn the GOP had apparently held on to the biggest procedural weapon in its arsenal.

But Ryan may have been getting ahead of himself. House Republicans have barely begun discussing the debt deadline, and when they take up the matter early next year, Ryan’s voice will be just one of many considered. When it comes to budgets, Ryan’s committee chairmanship makes him the Republican point man. But negotiating over the debt limit has been the province of House Speaker John Boehner.

A source familiar with Ryan’s thinking says the Congressman knows any concessions the party may be able to wring out of the debt-ceiling deadline would be incremental. So why did the House budget chair raise the hopes of the factions spoiling for another showdown? One possible reason: Tea Party members and conservative advocacy groups loathed the deal he cut with Murray. “We weren’t a fan of undoing the sequester,” says Dan Holler, communications director at Heritage Action for America. “If you’re going to increase the debt ceiling, then you need to have some kind of policies there that will change the trajectory of spending in the country.”

Dangling the prospect of a future fight could shore up his fraying relations with the base. But Ryan may also have inadvertently raised expectations of a clash that never comes. Boehner has adopted a newly combative posture toward the conservative advocacy groups that dragged the House GOP into a damaging shutdown fight; neither he nor Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has much appetite for a fiscal fracas that would divert attention from the dismal rollout of Barack Obama’s health care law.

“We’ll be talking about the debt limit with members in the weeks ahead,” says Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. “Can’t really say anything else at this point.” In the past, the Speaker has adopted the so-called Boehner Rule in debt-limit negotiations, which states that any increase in U.S. borrowing authority should be offset by corresponding spending cuts or reforms. Steel did not say whether the Speaker would insist on applying the rule in future negotiations.

For its part, the White House is downplaying the chances of another budget fight. When Obama refused to capitulate in the face of GOP demands as a shutdown loomed in September, he cited the goal of breaking the GOP’s pattern of “hostage taking” since Republicans took control of the House in 2010. “The President’s position has not changed,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Monday. “We do not expect Republicans to walk that path again.”

In some ways, Ryan was a surprising figure to raise the prospect. Despite his polarizing budget blueprint, he is cautious with his words and a disciplined custodian of his image. He knows as well as anyone the damage the party incurred by picking an ill-advised shutdown fight, as well as the likelihood that another one next year would overshadow Democrats’ vulnerabilities over Obamacare. Ryan’s allusion to a debt-limit skirmish may reveal the depth of Tea Party disappointment he faces. The risk is that he may have made it more likely the Tea Party pick a fight the rest of the GOP isn’t keen on having.