Darryl Webb, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Easy for them to say: Cut spending, no matter what. Don't let the government borrow any more. Shut it down if you have to. While the cast of potential White House contenders tells Congress to get tough, drawing lines in the sand is risky for lawmakers who have to live with the consequences.
Many remember what happened more than two years ago when House conservatives bolted from their Republican president and leadership to defeat a $700 billion rescue bill for the nation's financial system. The Dow Jones industrials plunged 777 points, the most ever for a single day. Lawmakers had second thoughts, and four days later 58 of them, including 25 Republicans, switched sides to pass it.
Many Republicans paid a huge political price, losing re-election last year as furious tea partyers made how lawmakers voted on the bank bailout the single biggest litmus test of their conservatism.
However dangerous such brinksmanship is for lawmakers — and the country — it offers White House hopefuls the opportunity to criticize Washington spending while portraying themselves as the commonsense alternatives.
"We had a partial government shutdown in Minnesota and the world didn't come to an end," former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a recent interview. "And so you don't want to have that be your goal. But sometimes . when it's appropriate and you're standing on the right principles, there needs to be strong conviction and sometimes a showdown."
Other would-be White House contenders are railing against a Congress poised to pile on new debt, calling it irresponsible and a symptom of an out-of-touch Washington. As they watch, leaders of the two parties accuse each other of trying to bring about a government shutdown that they can then blame on one another.
"The shutdown's not good for anybody," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in an interview. "I think the shutdown . needs to be viewed as getting the attention of the powers that be that America and the American people are done with government just playing the gimmicks of accounting and spending more money and saying 'we didn't have a choice.'
"By gosh, you've got a choice. Make the choice," Huckabee intones. "Draw a line in the sand. For once in your lives, show that you've got the political cojones to stand up and be counted."
The federal government, now borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar it spends, will reach its debt limit this spring, necessitating Congress to approve a bigger credit line to cover spending already approved. Both President Barack Obama and GOP House Speaker John Boehner have urged raising the debt limit, but some Republicans want to use the threat of a failed vote to demand future spending cuts.
"To me, the debt ceiling is a tool," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. "This is a tool to get spending cuts and to make the left and anyone else understand the debt ceiling is going to go up when we have a plan that puts us on a path . that starts making the cuts."
Without the increase to the debt limit, the government would be in a position to default on its financial obligations, stop paying for some programs and send the global economy into a free fall. The specter of an unchanged debt ceiling is also a pressure point for Republicans looking to cut spending.
"There are a lot of people, though, who are saying, 'Shut her down, if that's what it takes,'" said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "Let it be for a week or two there, this message that is sent to our politicians who are so tone deaf to what the people of America are saying."
Calling for balanced budgets and cuts is easy for most of the field. Most are former governors who had to balance their budgets by law; only Barbour remains in office. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, is the only Washington incumbent seriously weighing a bid and she is on board to force cuts.
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