The push-back has come in recent days from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a freshman who is running for reelection next year. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told constituents during the Easter recess that he would not vote to lift the debt limit without a “real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction.”
Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), generally a stalwart White House ally, is undecided on the issue and is “hopeful” that a debt-ceiling bill can be attached to a measure to cut the federal deficit, said her spokesman, Linden Zakula. Klobuchar is also up for reelection next year.
Months ago it seemed unthinkable that Congress might refuse to raise the borrowing limit. Leaders in both parties agreed that failing to do so would risk a default by the U.S. government, which could send interest rates soaring and cut off Social Security checks, as well as salaries for combat troops.
And although many lawmakers and aides say a bipartisan deal is likely, the insistence on conditions by a small but pivotal group of Democrats suggests that any agreement would almost certainly have to include substantial cuts in the deficit — not just to mollify House Republicans but to satisfy Democrats who could be politically vulnerable on spending issues.
“As catastrophic as it would be to fail to raise our debt ceiling, it’s even more irresponsible to not take this opportunity to own up to our unsustainable spending path,” Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), another Democrat challenging the White House, said in a statement his office released this week. “If we don’t take action to reduce our deficit spending, Congress will be facing this same debt ceiling vote in the near term – still with no end to our deficits in sight.”
The debate is likely to dominate Capitol Hill as early as next week, when lawmakers return from recess.
The government is expected to reach its $14.3 trillion debt cap in mid-May. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said he can maneuver to avoid a default until early July.
The White House has condemned efforts to attach additional measures to the debt-ceiling issue. Press secretary Jay Carney has called it “a dangerous, risky idea to hold hostage . . . a vote on raising the debt ceiling to any other piece of legislation.”
On Thursday, White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said legislative leaders in both parties “have been clear that the debt ceiling has to and will be raised to prevent another economic meltdown.” She added that there is also bipartisan agreement about reducing the deficit by trillions of dollars. “If members of Congress act responsibly and try to reach common ground, we can agree to significant deficit reduction without playing reckless politics with our economy,” she said.