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December 1, 2015

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With debt ceiling decisions will come consequences — practical and political

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

Lawmakers face an existential choice over the nation’s existential crisis, posed by the threat of default and the debt limit.

Their choice is between the practical and the political.

Republican and Democratic leaders say the crisis is real, and that the debt limit needs to be raised by Aug. 2 if the United States wants to keep its credit rating.

Three-quarters of Americans think raising tax revenue to enable the country to pay its debts is a smart way to solve the problem, according to a recent Gallup poll. But even with that consensus, a vote to raise the debt ceiling or raise taxes could be deadly on the campaign trail.

Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dean Heller are staring down this two-edged sword.

If they vote to increase the debt ceiling, they’ll likely get hit for it: Berkley by Republicans; Heller by Tea Party Republicans. If they vote against whatever deal emerges, they have to hope the rest of Congress goes the other way — or that the havoc the Treasury Department says will be wrought on everything from the stock markets to the family checkbook doesn’t happen — or people may blame them for the default.

Neither Berkley nor Heller has declared which way they plan to vote — there’s no plan on the table. But if you listen closely, it sounds as if Berkley is leaning toward yes, and Heller is leaning toward no.

Heller has all but made his vote conditional on Congress passing a balanced-budget amendment, which the House will consider this week but the Senate isn’t likely to pass. Most Democrats and some conservative commentators think a balanced-budget requirement, although popular in states, is little more than a recipe for disaster, and would stall the economic recovery in the name of making prudent cuts.

“We have to do it the same way a family would do it,” President Barack Obama said Friday, usurping a favorite Republican metaphor for fiscal responsibility. “A family, if they get overextended and their credit card is too high, they don’t just stop paying their bills ... we don’t stop sending our kids to college; we don’t stop fixing the boiler or the roof that’s leaking. We do things in a sensible, responsible way.”

Berkley is sticking to her line about wanting to protect Medicare and Social Security — but she has said she will listen to compromise solutions to raise the debt ceiling because: “I’m anxious to do what’s right for the country. I’ll worry about my politics later.”

If Berkley and Heller do split, it will mirror their votes last time the country was on the brink of a shutdown: Berkley voted for the compromise fiscal 2011 budget package, Heller voted against it, complaining it didn’t cut enough. The budget passed.

But this time, the president is warning, no free votes. “If a party or politician is constantly taking the position ‘my way or the highway’, constantly being locked into ideologically rigid positions, that we’re going to remember at the polls,” he said Friday.

His intention was to shift the political consequence away from those who will vote for a debt-limit increase and onto those who won’t. Will it work?

Republicans are pushing back, accusing the president and Democratic Party of having the “my way or the highway” position for refusing to work off the House’s budgets and proffering no competing legislation of their own.

The fallout for either decision won’t be clear until next year, after the country either defaults or doesn’t, and as candidates including Berkley and Heller determine how to summarize their choices — and those of their opponents — in a way that sells on the campaign trail.

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