WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers in both parties urged President Barack Obama to offer a detailed plan for curbing the national debt in the speech he is to deliver today, warning that they will not authorize fresh borrowing unless he agrees to mandatory restraints on future spending.
With the debt nudging closer to the legal ceiling of $14.3 trillion, anxiety is running high on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are reluctant either to approve legislation that would permit the debt to rise or to face the potentially devastating economic consequences if the government were to stop borrowing and default on its obligations.
Just to see the nation through next year, lawmakers would have to raise the limit by nearly $2.2 trillion under the spending plan that Mr. Obama submitted to Congress in February, according to congressional budget analysts. Even the austere blueprint House Republicans plan to approve this week would require about $1.9 trillion in fresh debt by October 2012, a month before the next presidential election.
Republicans and Democrats alike said Tuesday that failing to raise the debt limit would invite catastrophe. But many said they could not, in good conscience, authorize more borrowing unless Mr. Obama agreed to cap federal spending, adopt triggers to force rewrites of the tax code and entitlement programs or accept some other binding mechanism for bringing the debt under control.
"We're going to require as a condition for raising the debt ceiling something really important," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters. "That means no window dressing, no blue smoke and mirrors -- something real, something measurable that clearly will begin to reduce our debt."
"It's not just Republicans," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. "A lot of Democrats, including myself, are not going to vote to raise the national debt ceiling unless there is something concrete, real, tough done to guarantee that the debt itself will be reduced in the coming years."
Mr. McConnell said he will "be talking to the president about that very subject in great detail in the coming weeks." He and other congressional leaders are scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama this morning at the White House to preview the president's speech, as Washington turns from the narrow battle over 2011 spending cuts to the more profound debate about how to shape an affordable government for an aging society.
White House officials have adamantly rejected the idea of including spending caps or other budget process reforms in legislation to raise the debt ceiling, arguing that ensuring the government's solvency is too important to be held hostage to other issues.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney affirmed the administration's position. Mr. Obama is not expected to alter it in the speech he plans to deliver this afternoon at George Washington University.
"We don't believe ... that there should be a link between efforts to address our long-term deficit problem and debt problem and the imperative of raising the debt ceiling," Mr. Carney said. The White House, he said, expects Congress to acquiesce to the administration's request to raise the limit "because everyone recognizes the consequences of not doing it, which would be to throw the global economy into chaos."
Congressional authority to limit federal borrowing dates to the founding of the republic. According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress individually authorized every federal loan until 1917, when it agreed to set an overall ceiling to give the Treasury more flexibility as the nation entered World War I.
Raising the debt ceiling is usually a perfunctory matter. Congress has raised it at least nine times since 2001. The bills usually prompt partisan posturing over fiscal responsibility but little real drama.
This time is different because the debt has climbed to its highest point, compared to the size of the economy, in more than 50 years. And there's no end in sight without a major tax increase or sharp cuts to popular safety-net programs for retirees.
With world financial markets still jumpy from the recent recession and anxious about the growing load of government debt in a host of countries, many lawmakers worry about giving the perception that the United States lacks the political will to manage its finances -- especially after the display of partisan brinksmanship over 2011 spending that nearly forced a government shutdown last week.
"We cannot go through the same process on the debt limit. Default would be unspeakably cataclysmic. Getting close to default would be unspeakably cataclysmic," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is working to develop a "balanced" mechanism for restraining spending and raising revenues that would be acceptable to both parties. "We're acting like we don't know how to run the country. And that is not a good perception to leave."
With the debt expected to hit the ceiling by May 16, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he can take measures to push the deadline to July 8. Republican leaders made clear Tuesday that they plan to use the extra time.