The vote on whether to increase the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling is being hyped as a potential Waterloo for the new Republican House majority, but time could be on the Republicans' side.
The emerging Republican strategy is to make enough cuts upon taking power to slow down the vote, which has been forecast by some as soon as March, until May or even June.
The delay would also give Republican leaders time to show voters and, more importantly, freshmen members looking to show their fiscal conservatism, that a deal for a debt ceiling increase in exchange for even deeper cuts is credible.
"It's essential that in the five months prior to the debt limit vote, we start righting the ship by taking long overdue steps to cut spending and rein in government. If we do our work properly, we'll have shown signs that things are beginning to be managed properly," a senior GOP aide told Power Play.
In short, lawmakers will be eyeing ways to save even small sums - even in the millions of dollars, a rounding error for most congressional appropriations purposes - when Republicans take over in January.
Speaker-to-be John Boehner has been candid about the difficulties of the vote and has warned that Republicans will have to deal with the issue "as adults." If the U.S. balks at increasing the debt ceiling, the cost of borrowing money to keep the federal government running could skyrocket as foreign creditors are given cause to wonder whether the U.S. will make good on its obligations.
Refusing to increase the debt ceiling might also precipitate a partial government shutdown as programs and agencies were slashed to provide the operating budget for essential programs.
There's some irony for the GOP in determining the timetable. Budget whizzes in Congress tell Power Play that the initial Congressional Budget Office forecast for the feds maxing out their credit limit was well into the summer. But that timeframe will shorten considerably depending on where tax rates are.
The more the current tax rates are extended, the sooner the credit will run out. With all of the current tax rates in place, May looks like the best bet, provided that tax returns in March and April are bountiful.
The upside for GOPers is that they have a brief window to make some cuts that could, to borrow a phrase from the health-care war, "bend the cost curve." Whacking programs and changing projected outlays could buy the new House leadership time to cut a deal.
And that's going to require some finesse.
As Rep.-Elect Bill Johnson of Ohio told the Wall Street Journal this week about his sense of the more than 80 freshman members: "Most of us agreed that to increase the limit would be a betrayal of what we told voters we would do."
But the House leadership team hopes that if freshmen can see months of good faith on spending cuts, the final negotiation will be somewhat easier.
The debt ceiling vote is then envisioned as part of a larger spending package negotiated with the White House and Senate Democrats that includes deep cuts, budget process reform and even "ending taxpayer-funded abortion," according to another top Republican House aide.
The goal is to make the Tea Party-fueled freshmen a part of setting the agenda, not to deliver a diktat.
"We've got plenty of time to work with Members and figure out the best strategy," the top aide told Power Play.
Thanks to today's Power Play Crew Wes Barrett, April Girouard, Heidi Noonan, Paige Dukeman, Varuna Bhatia, Molly Mathews and Jason Donner
The Day in Quotes
"This exercise is defensive in nature."
-- Announcement from the Pentagon that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was headed to the Yellow Sea, the site of the artillery battle between North and South Korea, to join South Korean naval forces on maneuvers Sunday.
"(South Korea is) derailing the process for improving inter-Korean relations, scuttling inter-Korean Red Cross talks and driving the situation to the brink of war by pursuing its policy of confrontation..."
-- Statement from North Korea's official news agency on the battle that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians.
"North Korea will have a strong incentive to celebrate the heir apparent's strategic genius on Jan. 8."
Lee Sung-yoon, professor of international politics at Tufts University, to the New York Times predicting a nuclear test to celebrate the 28th birthday of Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il.
-- Description of the economic recovery in the newly released minutes of the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve.
"Going out there and winning this would be a lot like a big middle finger to the people who hate my mom and hate me."
"If they start attacking my potential candidacy and trying to erode a base of support and discredit or invalidate me and my record, and my policies, then I will know that I will do more harm than good to the cause...If I get in the way of that cause, I don't need a title, I don't need a position, I don't need to run for office in order to affect positive change."
-- Sarah Palin to Sean Hannity on his radio show about a potential 2012 bid"Don't put it past al Qaeda or the terrorists to end their 85-year-old grandmother's life in a glory tribute to Allah. With the saying goes and many of my fellow screeners used to say, ‘Trust no one and test everyone because lives depend on it.' Absolutely. Lives depend on it."
-- Former TSA Screener Annie Thomas on "FOX & Friends," discussing her patting down of an 85-year-old grandmother
"The Taliban have sufficient organizational capability and support to pose a threat to the government's viability, particularly in the south."
-- Gloomy new report from the Pentagon to Congress on the state of the Afghan war.
"No one can really explain to me -- and I'm a member of the Senate -- exactly who is making the decisions as to how much money each person gets for earmarks, this is a little bit of a kabuki dance that goes on behind closed doors."
-- Sen. Claire McCaskill comments on earmarks in an interview with FOX News colleague Jim Angle to air Wednesday.
"It's literally an institutionalized blackmail that goes on here: ‘We'll give you an earmark in our bill, in one of our bills, if you will vote for all of the bills.' That's a real problem."
- Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-PA) in an interview with FOX News colleague Jim Angle to air Wednesday explaining his perception of Earmark proceedings.
"The pundits were clearly right about this, we were clearly wrong. You know, I've drawn to the inside [straight] before when playing poker, and we hoped, obviously, that there would be some scenario where that would happen."
-- DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), quoted by ABC News on his 2010 predictions of Democrats holding the House being wrong. Republicans have already built a 24-seat majority, the largest in more than 60 years, with two races still undecided.
"I do think that we need to extend all the tax cuts because this is not the time for anyone to be having a discussion on increasing taxes at a time when the economy is at a very slow recovery."
-- Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) on "America's Newsroom" with Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer discussing why he favors an extension of the current tax rates taxes across all tax brackets.
"I think the Senate Republicans ought to be forced to filibuster on the floor, stand up there like Jimmy Stewart and filibuster on a Christmas night, and tell the American public that they're going to keep 98 percent from getting a tax break because they are concerned about the wealthiest people in this country."
-- Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) on "Your World with Neil Cavuto" discussing the battle over Republicans wanting to extend the Bush tax cuts to all Americans.
"He knew in advance there'd be no way to satisfy everyone, but somebody had to do it."
-- Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) praising Gulf spill compensation fund boss Kenneth Feinberg to the New York Times on the eve of the announcement of the terms of the final awards from BP's $20 billion fund amid complaints that he has worked too hard to protect the oil company's interests.
"...the purpose is to examine the political, economic and social realities of Cambodia . . . and to observe its increasing importance to the United States."
-- An email obtained by the Washington Post from Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA) urging her House colleagues to sign up for a trip the week after Christmas and promising the use of military aircraft if enough members signed up.
-- The number of copies George W. Bush's memoir "Decision Points" sold in its first two weeks.
"Always assume you're on camera when you are in the chamber. Even if you are simply looking at your cell phone, you might appear to be asleep. It's happened to other members"
-- Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), quoted by The Hill giving advice to incoming freshmen.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"I think everybody understands the only outcome that will be considered success is if the regime eventually implodes and collapses of its own inefficiency and irrationality and lunacy in turmoil the way it governs itself.And one way to do that is not to continue what we have been doing for 16 years, is negotiating and periodically caving in to threats like this."
-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier" discussing what to do about North Korea.
A Note to Readers - A New Home for Power Play
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Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.