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Return of the debt ceiling battle: Coming soon to a Congress near you

Now that the Senate is on the verge of signing off on a bipartisan budget plan that has already cleared the House, we can wave goodbye to all the partisan fiscal battles that have become commonplace in Washington, right?

Nope.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Why? Because, the debt ceiling. Just ask Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), one of the two main architects of the budget deal that appears to set to pass.

"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 budget agreement that Ryan reached in consultation with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) looks to avert the threat of a government shutdown in the near future. But it doesn't address the debt ceiling, which was a main component of the fiscal standoff that seized Congress in the fall.

The debt ceiling was reached last May, prompting the government to take "extraordinary measures" to meet its obligations. Lawmakers passed legislation in October that suspended enforcement of the debt ceiling until early February, setting the stage for another potential battle that could unfold in March.

The battle lines are familiar. Something's got to give. Republicans, per Ryan, will want concessions in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. The White House will want lawmakers to approve a "clean" increase and not allow it to become a subject of negotiation.

"The president's position has not changed," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday when asked about President Obama's long-standing refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling.

Ryan was deliberately vague on Sunday. So it's not clear what, exactly, Republicans will demand.

"We're going to meet in our retreats after the -- after the holidays and discuss exactly what it is we're going to try and get for this," he said.

What does seem clear is that the full-scale effort to shred the health-care law Republicans initially sought to tether to the debt ceiling during the fall isn't going to find much support in the party this time around. The strategy did some pretty serious damage to the GOP's image, and party leaders are resolved not to repeat that exercise in political impairment.

Meanwhile, the White House is warning that reprising the threat of refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless certain conditions are met would be a foolish position for Republicans to adopt.

"I would simply suggest that the numerous statements from Republican leaders of all stripes essentially forsaking that strategy would lead us to believe, and might lead you to believe that they won't pursue that strategy again," Carney said. "It's bad for the economy, bad for the middle class, at least, some people think it's bad for the Republican Party."

The million-dollar question is what Republicans will demand, and what the starting point in the next standoff will look like. Will the GOP go narrow, as it did in the budget negotiations of the past several weeks? Or will the party give in to pressure to broaden demands, even if not to the extent of what the GOP asked for earlier this year?

The position the GOP adopts will speak volumes about its strategy headed toward the midterm elections in the fall of 2014.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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