J. David Ake, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The United States just passed a dubious milestone: Government debt surged to an all-time high, topping $14 trillion — $45,300 for each and everyone in the country.
That means Congress soon will have to lift the legal debt limit to give the nearly maxed-out government an even higher credit limit or dramatically cut spending to stay within the current cap. Either way, a fight is ahead on Capitol Hill, inflamed by the passions of tea party activists and deficit hawks.
Already, both sides are blaming each other for an approaching economic train wreck as Washington wrestles over how to keep the government in business and avoid default on global financial obligations.
Bills increasing the debt limit are among the most unpopular to come before Congress, serving as pawns for decades in high-stakes bargaining games. Every time until now, the ending has been the same: We go to the brink before raising the ceiling.
All bets may be off, however, in this charged political environment, despite some signs the partisan rhetoric is softening after the Arizona shootings.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says failure to increase borrowing authority would be "a catastrophe," perhaps rivaling the financial meltdown of 2008-2009.
Congressional Republicans, flexing muscle after November's victories, say the election results show that people are weary of big government and deficit spending, and that it's time to draw the line against more borrowing.
Defeating a new debt limit increase has become a priority for the tea party movement and other small-government conservatives.
So far, the new GOP majority has proved accommodating. Republicans are moving to make good on their promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year. They adopted a rules change by House Speaker John Boehner that should make it easier to block a debt-limit increase.
The national debt is the accumulation of years of deficit spending going back to the days of George Washington. The debt usually advances in times of war and retreats in peace.
Remarkably, nearly half of today's national debt was run up in just the past six years. It soared from $7.6 trillion in January 2005 as President George W. Bush began his second term to $10.6 trillion the day Obama was inaugurated and to $14.02 trillion now. The period has seen two major wars and the deepest economic downturn since the 1930s.
With a $1.7 trillion deficit in budget year 2010 alone, and the government on track to spend $1.3 trillion more this year than it takes in, annual budget deficits are adding roughly $4 billion a day to the national debt. Put another way, the government is borrowing 41 cents for every dollar it spends.
In a letter to Congress, Geithner said the current statutory debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion, set just last year, may be reached by the end of March — and hit no later than May 16. He warned that holding it hostage to skirmishes over spending could lead the country to default on its obligations, "an event that has no precedent in American history."
Debt-level brinkmanship doesn't wear a party label.
Here's what then-Sen. Barack Obama said on the Senate floor in 2006: "The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance the government's reckless fiscal policies."
It was a blast by the freshman lawmaker against a Bush request to raise the debt limit to $8.96 trillion.
Bush won on a 52-48 party-line vote. Not a single Senate Democrat voted to raise the limit, opposition that's now complicating White House efforts to rally bipartisan support for a higher ceiling.
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