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Raising the Debt Limit: There will be no vote before it’s time

Call it the "Paul Masson Effect."

Congressional leaders are trying to unearth a legislative pathway that would raise the country's debt ceiling later this spring or summer.

But no one knows how lawmakers can approve such an increase. Or when they will do it.

All anyone knows is that the Treasury Department says the nation has until August 2 before the U.S. defaults on its obligations.

This is where Paul Masson comes in.

Back in the 1970s, the late Orson Welles recorded a series of famous television commercials for Paul Masson wines. Welles dramatically stared into the camera and quoted the vintner Masson.

"We will sell no wine before it's time," Welles intoned.

That's where Congress is with raising the debt limit. There will be no vote before it's time. And the Congressional leadership is nowhere close to knowing how to engineer a debt ceiling vote that could pass.

Here's the issue:

Raising the debt ceiling is one of the most precarious votes facing Congress each year. Lawmakers don't want to increase the debt limit. But they feel they must do so as spending and the costs of entitlements explode. Yet, if the U.S. fails to raise the statutory debt threshold, the federal government could default.

It's believed an American default could roil the global economy and financial markets.

"We have a moment of opportunity to act," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) when interviewed on CBS's Face the Nation over the weekend. "Because if we don't act, the market is going to act for us. Our creditors are going to act for us."

Voting to increase the debt ceiling is painful for lawmakers. So over the past decade, Republicans and Democrats alike have engineered complex votes that trigger an increase in the debt limit, while shielding lawmakers from having directly voted on the issue itself. Majorities from both parties have concocted a variety of creative, parliamentary schemes that have prevented the U.S. from defaulting, yet inoculated members from taking political heat for voting to pile on more debt.

In fact, orchestrating a debt ceiling increase in such a manner was often the only way to conjure up the necessary votes.

House Republicans promised voters they'd run things differently if voters gave them the majority. They frequently criticized the parliamentary gambits conceived by Democrats to pass everything from a debt ceiling hike to health care reform. So with the GOP now controlling the House, there's no way they can rely on Congressional chicanery to raise the debt limit.

But Republican leaders face an even more vexing quandary.

The 2010 midterms were a sea-change election. They represented a demand by the electorate to fundamentally alter Washington. Especially when it comes to spending and fiscal discipline.

In 1995, House Republicans rode to Capitol Hill with the ten-point Contract with America. The contract was a document compromised of legislative initiatives which reflected the mandate voters awarded them in the 1994 midterm elections.

The prime directive of the 2010 elections was to slash spending.

Republicans have done that. But they're now faced with a situation that is contrary to their electoral decree. That's why a vote to raise the debt limit is exceedingly complicated.

So how do Republicans cobble together a vote to stave off a potential economic collapse?

For starters, the GOP has made sure the electorate knows they're not completely in charge here. Republicans only run the House, not the Senate nor the White House. In other words, the GOP is trying to tell voters that it's here to change things, but don't blame them if they can't change everything because of Senate Democrats and President Obama.

Next, a "crisis" over the debt limit presents a good opportunity to leverage serious cuts. Overspending has been a problem in Washington for nearly 60 years. The current fiscal conditions have deposited the U.S. at a catastrophic crossroads. So, if lawmakers and the administration can't mine some serious cuts now, they never will.

Then, there's sheer politics.

Democrats will long bear the albatross of "tax and spend." Republicans are the party of "smaller government." The 2010 election results clearly showed the country sided with the GOP. So, this is an opportunity for Republicans to make some political hay. Which is why for months now, Republicans have consistently said they won't call a vote on elevating the debt ceiling unless they secure a framework from Democrats that will impose historic cuts.

At the very least, that argument is just smart politics by Republicans. But it's also a demonstration of how tough this vote is for them internally. In essence, Republicans are setting up Democrats as foil if they can't contrive a successful debt ceiling vote. If Democrats don't offer "sufficient" cuts in the bargain, the GOP can blame Democrats for the economic turmoil that could ensue if the U.S. defaults.

But that ploy also represents another problem area for Republicans: there's not support among House or Senate Republicans to approve a debt limit increase.

Voters elected fiscal conservatives to Congress last fall. The bare essence of the tea party movement is to tamp down spending. And raising the debt ceiling is anathema to many of members who now make up the GOP majority in the House.

Remember, Republicans needed sizable Democratic support on both major, interim spending bills to avert government shutdowns earlier in the year. And Republicans don't want to carry all the water on any debt ceiling increase. That's why Boehner is soliciting Democratic buy-in for this vote.

"I said, Mr. President, come on. You and I. Let's lock arms and we'll jump out of this boat together," said Boehner on CBS.

In short, Boehner needs Democrats to help approve a debt ceiling hike, because he's unlikely to get much assistance from Republicans.

Forging an agreement to trim spending and prevent a government shutdown was a Herculean task. But reaching an agreement on the debt ceiling is more complex. And the stakes couldn't be higher for Boehner.

Part of the problem is that the speaker exhausted a lot of political capital on the arrangement to keep the government operating. Many conservatives don't think they cut enough. A few Republican lawmakers concede privately they're wary of Boehner horse-trading with the president.

Meantime, the clock ticks toward the August 2 deadline. And the longer the debt ceiling issue twists in the wind, the tougher it might be for Republicans to vote for it.

One school of thought suggests the sides work up something soon so the issue doesn't rot under the sweltering summer sun.

Boehner suggested as much to CBS.

"I'm ready to cut the deal today. We don't have to wait until the 11th hour," the speaker said.

But so far, no one's authored a plan that could pass the House and Senate.

One option is for Republicans to put a straight debt ceiling increase on the floor in the next few weeks. Lawmakers could warn the markets that it's a moot exercise. At this stage, such a drill would inevitably produce a failed vote. But the defeat would represent a marker and demonstrate how dire the crisis is.

The thought is that such a maneuver could jump-start efforts to bridge the impasse and even convince some skeptical lawmakers to vote yes.

But the phantasm of another big, failed vote still haunts Congress.

In September, 2008, the House rushed to put the economic rescue package on the floor (known as TARP) to avert a financial meltdown.

The bill failed. And the stock market collapsed in real-time with the vote.

The House and Senate ultimately approved the much-maligned TARP legislation.

But that television image of the Dow tanking in tandem with the House vote continues to spook lawmakers to this day.

Any debt limit vote that fails, even a dry run, could rattle the markets. Most lawmakers believe it's too risky to call for a vote that's doomed to fail on the House floor.

Which takes us back to the "Paul Masson Effect."

"We will sell no wine before it's time," declared Orson Welles in that wine ad some 30 years ago.

There will be no vote on the debt limit before it's time.

And it won't be time, until the votes are in hand.