Why the Debt Ceiling Is a Better Fight Than the Continuing Resolution for the GOP

Two fights loom, but Republicans can only win one.

House Speaker John Boehner has brushed aside accusations that he couldn't control his conference.

House Speaker John Boehner has brushed aside accusations that he couldn't control his conference.

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The debt ceiling is going to need to be raised in October, sooner than expected, and so far Republicans and Democrats in Congress are on a collision course with compromise nowhere in sight.

Making matters worse, it is not the only deadline looming.

Congress must also act before the end of the fiscal year or before Oct. 1, on the continuing resolution, a stopgap measure to keep the government funded to the end of the calendar year.

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A small and vocal coalition within the GOP has spent a large share of its August recess dangling the CR, as its known in Washington circles, as collateral unless the Obama administration agrees to defund its own Affordable Care Act.

The effort has largely been dismissed by party leaders, who have signaled it is not a winning fight for the party because many are doubtful President Barack Obama would cave, resulting in a government shutdown.

Instead, experts say it is time for Republicans to recalibrate their message and focus on how to get the cuts in government spending they have long advocated for in the debt ceiling showdown.

Before lawmakers bolted for August recess, House Speaker John Boehner demanded equal cuts in spending for every dollar the Obama administration asked for to increase the debt limit.


Senate Democrats laid out an opposite approach arguing the debt ceiling needs to be raised and that is non-negotiable.

Not raising the debt ceiling or even getting dangerously close to the October deadline could spook credit agencies, leading to a downgrade like the one in 2011. That is something experts say the administration won't let happen.

"The White House is unwilling to default and they are under more pressure under that circumstance," says GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

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Mackowiak, however, says a government shutdown, on the other hand, is a less effective strategy because it plays into Obama's long-time narrative that government has an important role to play in Americans' every day lives.

"What is one way to change people's perceptions about how important government is?," Mackowiak says. "You show them unpaid military, elderly people not receiving their Social Security checks, and closed national parks. Republicans in charge know the bully pulpit of the White House is too powerful in a shutdown, but the debt limit is a different story."

In 1995, when Republicans instigated a government shutdown, the results were abysmal for the party. More than 800,000 government employees were immediately furloughed and a Gallup poll at the time showed that 49 percent blamed the GOP whereas only 26 percent blamed then-President Bill Clinton.

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Meanwhile, when Congress edged dangerously close to defaulting on its debt in 2011 and received a credit downgrade, voters still blamed Republicans more than the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, but only by a two point margin —45 percent to 43 percent.

A two-fronted fiscal fight will surely bring both parties to the brink, but Republicans have the upper hand to get the spending cuts it has long advocated for if it focuses on one fight instead of two, Mackowiak says.

"The debt limit offers Republicans an opportunity to unite after a divisive interparty battle over the CR. There is a chance that they can get what they have always wanted. They can keep the sequester and the lower spending level," he says.

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