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How Republicans Will Legislate Debt

Federal Spending and debt were central issues in the recent election. And some incoming lawmakers are threatening to use an early vote on raising the nation's debt ceiling to draw a line in the sand. One of them is newly elected Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

"My intention is to vote against any effort to increase the national debt limit," Lee said. "Our current limit is at about 14 point 7 trillion dollars, that's a lot of money."

Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky is also threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling. He concedes it is likely to pass anyway, but says he wants to send a message that more debt is wrong. "For those who are opposed to the path this country is on," says former McCain adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin. "They will use this as the opportunity to extract a promise and real reforms for a more fiscally responsible future."

Many Republicans agree on the need to cut spending, but say you can't balance the budget in just one bite. Joe Barton of Texas says, "we will have a trillion and a half deficit this year. I don't think we can balance the budget in one fiscal year. And so, you know, realistically, I think you would have to have some increase in the debt."

Barton says it might be accomplished over three or four years, but that doing it all in one year would mean eliminating about a third of all federal spending in just a few months.

Conservative analysts who also want to cut spending say voting against raising the debt limit is not the best way to do it. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation notes that "not raising the debt limit means not paying the bill for past commitments. It could mean social security checks not going out, it could mean defaulting on the national debt. That's the kind of thing that would panic financial markets and do more harm than good."

And Holtz-Eakin, also a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, says that "would require the U.S. to default on payments for existing debt. That's unthinkable. The aftershock of that would be worse than the financial crisis that we just went through."

Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, a member of his party's leadership, says "I think what you'll find is we're not going to allow America to default on our debt. But we don't want to see America continuing down this path. We've said in our pledge that we will curve the debt and put us on a path to a balanced budget."

In keeping with that, several Republicans want to pair lifting the debt ceiling with mandated cuts in future spending. But opponents remain skeptical.

"I'll keep an open mind and review any proposal that comes along but that's a pretty high hurdle to clear with me," Lee said.

All Republicans say they want to cut spending. The question, of course, is how fast. Whatever the answer, it seems clear there will be no more votes to lift the debt ceiling without conditions -- and a firm pledge to cut future spending. In the meantime, many conservatives will emphasize that the need to raise the debt limit is the painful result of past spending practices -- not their intentions for the future.

Jim Angle currently serves as chief national correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in 1996 as a senior White House correspondent.