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Political gamesmanship pushing debt vote to brink

One of the singular features of the American political system is that there are two kinds of votes in Congress. The first involves passing real legislation. The second aims simply to embarrass the other side.

An inordinate amount of the congressional time - perhaps most of it - is spent on unproductive votes in the raw pursuit of political advantage.

Last week, Senate Democrats held a surprise vote on a proposal by Republican congressman Paul Ryan to turn Medicare, the federal health plan for seniors, into a voucher program.

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The goal was to corner Republican senators into supporting the controversial Ryan proposal, allowing Democratic challengers to run attack ads in 2012 accusing the GOP incumbent of "voting to end Medicare."

Republicans in the House of Representatives hoped to score points of their own by scheduling a vote for late Tuesday that would provide for a "clean" $2.4-trillion (U.S.) increase in the federal debt ceiling.

GOP leaders said they were merely acquiescing to an earlier Democratic demand that raising the debt limit not be made subject to a bipartisan deal on spending cuts. But the real objective was to get Democrats on the record as unconditionally supporting more government borrowing, which is only slightly less popular with American voters right now than taking away seniors' health care.

"It will not be an adult moment in the House of Representatives," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer predicted in advance of the vote. He urged his colleagues to vote "no" along with the GOP majority, saying he did not want them to "subject themselves to a political 30-second ad" in 2012.

In the end, 82 Democrats heeded Mr. Hoyer's counsel. The measure was defeated by a vote of 318 to 97. And neither side really came out ahead.

The danger with all this non-adult behaviour is that it increases the American public's complacency about the consequences of not raising the federal debt limit beyond its current $14.3-trillion limit. And that will make it harder for Congress to act when it really must.

"They are not acting responsibly," said Kamran Dadkhah, an associate professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston. "But what you need at this stage is leadership from the President, which we are not seeing."

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Prof. Dadkhah conceded that "sooner or later" the debt ceiling will be increased. As long as the United States has a budget deficit - the shortfall is set to come in at $1.6-trillion this year - it has to borrow more. But what happens before Congress gets around to raising the debt limit might not be pretty.

The U.S. Treasury actually hit the debt ceiling a couple of weeks ago. But measures taken by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner mean it can avoid breaching the statutory limit until Aug. 2. Congress must act by then to raise the ceiling if the federal government is to avert a default on its debt.

Political gamesmanship over raising the debt ceiling is a familiar Washington ritual. Depending on which party is in power, the other one always opposes it. But no one has ever doubted that the limit would go up, since not raising it would entail a default and/or government shutdown.

This time is different. No one is panicking yet, but beads of sweat are clearly building on the foreheads of bond traders and Treasury folk alike.

The reason is that there are now dozens of House Republicans, most affiliated with the Tea Party movement, who are not bluffing when they say they will not vote to raise the borrowing limit under any circumstances. Dozens more of their GOP colleagues in both the House and Senate oppose any increase in the debt ceiling without equal-sized spending cuts.

Three-way negotiations between Republicans, Democrats and the White House - brokered by Vice-president Joe Biden - are going on behind closed doors. But there is little sign that a deal is within reach.

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Complicating the negotiations is a hardening of American public opinion against raising the debt ceiling. A May 13 Pew Research Center poll showed that 47 per cent of voters want their member of Congress to vote against more borrowing, while only 19 per cent support raising the limit. Fully 70 per cent of Republicans said "no increase."

How worried is Barack Obama? White House press secretary Jay Carney invoked Ronald Reagan on Tuesday, reading excerpts from an appeal the GOP icon made to the Senate in 1983 to raise the debt limit.

"The full consequences of a default, even the prospect of a default, by the United States, are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate," the then-president wrote, warning of "incalculable damage."

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, he is guilty of the same gamesmanship of which Mr. Carney is now accusing Republicans. As a senator in 2006, he voted against raising the debt limit - with a Republican in the White House.

To borrow Mr. Hoyer's phrasing, it was not Mr. Obama's most "adult moment."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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