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Debt Ceiling Beltway Debate Carries Echoes of '95 Impasse

The Treasury secretary warned that even the appearance that the government might default on its debts was "unthinkable," and urged lawmakers to act swiftly so as to get the matter "out of the minds of the international markets."

The Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee accused the administration of using "scare tactics" and maintained that "we could pay a good chunk of our bills, including the outstanding debt instruments," even if the debt ceiling were not raised.

The president, meantime, vowed not to succumb to "blackmail" by the G.O.P.

These are not bulletins blasted out 10 seconds ago by Twitter to handheld devices across the globe, but rather the ancient sounds of a familiar-sounding battle that was waged in the nation's capital nearly two decades ago.

The Treasury secretary doing the talking was Robert E. Rubin, who served under Bill Clinton, the president vowing not to be blackmailed; and the Republican House Budget chairman was Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, now that state's governor.

When the Treasury Department declared a "debt suspension period" from May of this year until Aug. 2 -- the date the nation's $14.3 trillion borrowing power is set to evaporate -- it brought with it, for those Beltway veterans with long memories, eerie echoes of a previous tussle over the debt ceiling.

Treasury similarly declared a "debt suspension period" -- a determination by the Treasury secretary, in essence, that the federal government has reached its debt ceiling and must start getting creative with cash -- on Nov. 15, 1995. And it was in late March 1996 that Congress voted to approve an increase in the debt ceiling in the amount of $471 billion, from $5.029 trillion to $5.5 trillion. In between those two dates, the Democratic White House and a GOP-led Congress engaged in a legendary wrangle over appropriations -- a separate ball of wax from the debt ceiling -- that provoked two government shutdowns.

Yet veterans of the era and those embroiled in today's debate told Fox News there are significant differences between then and now. For one thing, the political and media environments have changed dramatically.

"You've got bloggers, on both sides, online day and night pumping out their views, rumors, all kinds of information," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee who is now a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. 

"I think it tends to push people more towards the edges of the spectrum, and there are fewer people in the middle. That makes it harder for politicians -- whether it's a Democratic politician or a Republican politician -- to find compromise and to bring their members along to vote for a package," Lilly added.

Lilly said Newt Gingrich exercised greater control over House Republicans when he was speaker than Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the current speaker, does today -- particularly Tea Party-backed freshmen who have balked at the "grand bargain" Boehner has sought to negotiate with President Obama.

"Gingrich was much more actively involved in recruiting, training, and financing (GOP) candidates and so he was able to bring them along. He was part of their revolution," Lilly said in an interview. "I think (Boehner) is not as trusted by the conservative elements within the Republican conference. And I think that they are further from the political mainstream than the ones in the House in 1995 were."

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a former congressman who was elected to the Senate last year, ventured a different analysis as to why the White House and lawmakers were able to resolve the debt ceiling standoff of 1995-96 with greater comity -- even during the period of the government shutdowns -- than today's officials are exhibiting.

"We have a much more ideological and left-wing liberal president now than we had in Bill Clinton, who was much more practical about this," Toomey told Fox News. The 42nd president, Toomey argued, "accepted the proposition that we ought to get on a path to a balanced budget." 

The current president "is so passionately opposed to balancing our budget that he's threatened to veto a debt ceiling increase and plunge the country into what he describes as chaos."

Lilly disputed that argument, saying GOP lawmakers two decades ago were no less zestful than today's in painting the Democrat in the White House as a far-left liberal bent on taxing and spending America into economic ruin.

There are, however, some inarguable difference between the two periods. Moody's, the ratings agency, did not threaten a downgrade to the nation's credit rating as a result of the 1995-96 standoff until after the government shutdown ended. Today, economists largely agree the United States will suffer a downgrade on her credit ratings by at least one of the major agencies, whether or not the debt ceiling limit is breached.

One reason for that may be that throughout the "debt suspension period" in 1995-96, the federal government did not exhaust its operating cash balance in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York account.

Finally, the American economy in 1995 was in much better shape, with respectable GDP growth and an unemployment rate of just under 5.6 percent. Today, the economy is struggling to recover from a global recession and unemployment has remained stubbornly high, posting at 9.2 percent last month.

Fox News' Jim Farrell contributed to this report.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."