Financial experts have said they hope Washington is headed for a moment of realism on the national debt ceiling, when politicians conclude the issue is too risky to be used as a political football.
Sunday was not that moment.
Instead, on the weekly political talk shows, several top Republicans and a prominent Democrat said they might not vote to raise the limit on federal borrowing. They did so despite warnings that this exact kind of threat — if carried far enough — could destabilize financial markets and make the country’s IOUs harder to pay.
“Maybe or maybe not,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said when asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if he would vote to raise the limit. Kirk, like several others interviewed Sunday, said he wanted better assurances that federal spending would be curbed.
“I will vote no on the debt ceiling unless we have comprehensive, dramatic, effective and broad-based cuts to federal spending,” including changes to “entitlement” programs such as Social Security and Medicare, Kirk said.
His suggestion: attach to the debt-ceiling bill a report on spending cuts from the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Six.”
For now, however, this report does not exist.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host David Gregory asked two of the Gang of Six members if it was coming anytime soon.
“Do you intend to be relevant?” Gregory asked.
“We intend to be relevant,” Conrad said.
It was as specific as he got.
“The hope is that we’ll have a deal,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also appearing on “Meet the Press.” That was as specific as he got.
The debt ceiling, an official limit on the country’s borrowing, has been raised almost 100 times since it was first set in 1917. It now stands at $14.3 trillion.
Federal borrowing is on pace to exceed that as soon as May 16, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said, but unconventional financial measures could extend the date to July 8. If no more borrowing is allowed after that, the country could be forced to default on its debt obligations.
That, experts say, could upend the world’s financial markets and increase interest payments on U.S. debt.
Leaders from both parties have signaled some openness to compromise. President Obama has said that cuts in federal spending will be required to win the approval of the Republican-led House. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has demanded serious cuts but also has assured administration officials and Wall Street executives that he thinks raising the debt ceiling is the responsible thing to do.
But on Sunday, Conrad would not guarantee he would do it.
“I will not vote for any long-term extension of the debt, more than a year, unless there is a plan [to reduce the debt] in process,” Conrad said.
And Coburn said: “The idea that . . . this is catastrophic is wrong. What is catastrophic is continuing to spend money that we don’t have on things we don’t absolutely need.”
On CBS, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he would vote to raise the limit.
“The answer is unequivocally yes,” he said.
But Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a House freshman, said the impact of not raising the limit “is being overstated.”
He also would not vote for raising the limit unless Washington’s ways had changed.
“There is no way we should raise the debt ceiling unless this city is serious about cutting up the credit cards,” he said.