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Debt Ceiling Time Cloak

A few weeks ago, the science journal Nature published a report about a group of physicists who may have created a "time cloak." In an experiment, the physicists manipulated bands of light that shined down a fiber-optic cable. By maneuvering a lens, they actually concealed some colors produced by the light from being seen for just a fraction of a second.

This is what some describe as a "time cloak." It's a shroud which can actually camouflage people witnessing certain events. In fact, it's as though those events never occurred.

Members of Congress and President Obama had better hope those physicists step up their research. They could sure use one of those time cloaks to hide some events involving the debt ceiling week.

After all of the sturm and drang last summer about raising the debt ceiling, both chambers of Congress are entertaining a request by Mr. Obama to raise it once more.

There can't be a more onerous task on Capitol Hill when the Congress is bleeding red ink. And besides, didn't Congress already increase the debt limit last summer?

It did. But both the House and Senate, with the blessing of Democratic and Republican leaders, wrote the original bill last summer in such a way that there would be three separate debt ceiling requests over the next year. That punts any additional requests to increase the debt ceiling again until after this fall's election.

Here's how this all works:

The debt limit is the grand total of financial obligations that the federal government is allowed to incur at any given time. In an effort to "control" the exploding debt, Congress began capping that debt by establishing a statutory ceiling. If the government exceeded that grand total or failed to raise the debt limit more, the U.S. could default and ratings agencies could downgrade the nation's credit worthiness.

Either event could send shockwaves throughout the economy and rattle world financial markets.

In late July, the U.S. came very close to crashing through the debt ceiling without Congressional action. But in early August, just days before the Treasury Department said the U.S. would hit the debt threshold, both houses of Congress passed the Budget Control Act. That legislation increased the debt ceiling, made $2.4 trillion in budget cuts and created the supercommittee. The measure mandated the committee find at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts or the government would automatically face a spending sequester. A sequester is where money is simply walled-off so it can't be spent. Since the supercommittee foundered, most of the spending that's on target to be squirreled away will come from the Pentagon.

Even though nearly everyone was fixated on the initial debt ceiling increase last August and the formation of the supercommittee, few noted that the Budget Control Act allowed the president to make two additional requests to increase the debt limit.

But it didn't say that Congress had to go along.

That's where a "resolution of disapproval" comes in.

In Congressional terms, a "resolution of disapproval" is exactly what it sounds like. It's a rebuke. In this case, President Obama is making a request to increase the debt limit. And both houses of Congress will draft resolutions of disapproval to tell the president he can't do it.

But, like everything else in Congress, the resolutions must first pass. In other words, a "yea" vote means "no, Mr. President, you cannot increase the debt ceiling." A "nay" vote against the resolution of disapproval says "yes, Mr. President, you may increase the debt ceiling."

Mr. Obama and Congress have gone down this road before.

President Obama made his second request to raise the debt ceiling in late summer. On September 14, the House voted 232-186 to disapprove of that request. But the Democratically-controlled Senate didn't go along. Thus, the government increased the debt limit, just as it had in August.

On Thursday afternoon, the president sent a one-sentence missive to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that signaled his intention to make the third and final request to grow the debt ceiling. The president declared that "further borrowing is required to meet existing commitments" and he needs to hike the debt limit by $1.2 trillion.

Just a few months ago, the U.S. debt ceiling was under $15 trillion. This proposed increase jacks it up to $16.394 trillion.

House Republicans immediately began prepping a resolution of disapproval. They'll formally introduce it in the House Friday and plan a debate and vote on it next Wednesday. A senior Senate source indicates that the Senate will likely vote on a similar resolution of disapproval on Wednesday or Thursday.

If this request to hike the debt ceiling is anything like what happened last September, the GOP-controlled House will likely "disapprove" of Mr. Obama's request. And the Democratically-run Senate will probably not.

That means the government will have upped its capacity to borrow.

But what this exercise truly does is generate lots of rhetoric over spending. Republicans are sure to use the opportunity to rail against Mr. Obama and his spending habits. The GOP will likely point to the fact that it's President Obama who is making the request -even if the president is required to ask Congress for the increase and that Congressional Republicans helped forge the law which entails the trio of debt limit spikes.

Moments after President Obama made the request, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck lobbed a few volleys at the White House.

"This request is another reminder that the president has consistently punted on the tough choices needed to rein in the deficit," Buck said in a statement.

But not all Republicans exclusively directed their fire at Mr. Obama.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), one of the most-conservative members in the House and a member of the Budget Committee, said he'd vote for the resolution of disapproval. But Huelskamp heaped criticism on those who may try to appropriate this debt ceiling hike for political gain.

"Anyone who supported this deal back in August but then votes to oppose the debt limit increase this upcoming week should take no credit for standing against reckless spending," blasted Huelskamp. "The real opportunity to stand for fiscal responsibility was in August."

What Huelskamp alludes to is precisely part of the reason why House and Senate leaders wrote the Budget Control Act the way they did. Even top Republican leaders knew the country couldn't risk a default. Boehner said so on many occasions. The White House knew that giving Republicans multiple chances to vote against a request to add to the debt ceiling made the sell easy on the GOP side.

Still, it gave all sides a pathway to increase the debt limit without actually taking really tough votes. Votes to hike the debt ceiling are some of the most challenging ballots ever cast in Congress. The Budget Control Act fundamentally changed the message in Washington and makes historic cuts. But those reductions may not be deep enough for a public clamoring for fiscal sanity. And no one wants to hear about another debt ceiling increase.

That's why lawmakers might consider talking to the physicists who discovered the "time cloak." Much like the way they hid some of the colors that emanated from the light in the lab, lawmakers may wish there was a way to mask the debt ceiling increase from public view, too.