Maryland lawmakers feel pressure on nation's debt limit

Tea party groups are pushing the state's two GOP lawmakers in Congress to oppose the critical vote

  • Rep. Andy Harris holds a town hall meeting in April with residents of Elkton at Elkton Senior Center.
Rep. Andy Harris holds a town hall meeting in April with residents… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
May 15, 2011|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

When Rep. Andy Harris spoke at a Cecil County senior center recently, the first slide he showed on the wall behind him was an ominous chart projecting exponential growth over the next seven decades. The slide's title: "Tidal wave of debt."

"This is a real crisis," the first-term Republican told the seniors in Elkton as he gestured toward the chart. "I didn't get sent to Washington to sit by idly while this happens."

After a months-long battle over government spending and budget deficits in Washington, Harris and Republicans nationwide are under renewed pressure from tea party and other conservative groups to take a tough stand against raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling — even if that means risking economic turmoil.

The issue has not yet sparked the kind of reaction seen during the 2009 debate over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul — or, more recently, the law passed by the Maryland General Assembly to offer in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. But the national debt remains a bread-and-butter concern for many tea party groups in Maryland and nationwide.

And those groups want to ensure that the state's two Republican lawmakers, Harris and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, get the message.

"It's a make-or-break point," said Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican who chairs the Tea Party Caucus in the state legislature. "This is going to be a real turning point for many who were elected in 2010 as to whether or not they're actually going to live up to their promises."

Debate over the debt is guaranteed to reach fever pitch in Congress soon, with the nation technically maxing out its credit limit Monday. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said the government can use "extraordinary measures" to avoid defaulting on its obligations until Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans are already positioning for the fight.

In speech last week to the Economic Club of New York, House Speaker John A. Boehner said Republicans want the Obama administration to agree to at least $2 trillion in spending cuts before they will support raising the limit. But for several tea party leaders in Maryland — who are distrustful that Congress would follow through on promised cuts — that may not be enough.

Some want a constitutional amendment requiring lawmakers to balance the federal books — an idea Harris supports. Others seek significant changes to Medicare and other federal entitlement programs that are largely responsible for long-term deficits. Still others say the debt limit shouldn't be raised under any circumstances.

"We've heard a lot of words and a lot promises … we've listened to John Boehner talk a good game," said Michelle Jefferson, a former chair of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee who now leads a conservative group called We the People, Carroll County. "We can't compromise anymore."

Negotiations over how to proceed are being led by a seven-member panel chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. The group includes Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat.

To get his support to raise the limit, Harris said, leaders must also pass the budget amendment, approve a cap on future spending and reduce next year's deficit by 50 percent, or roughly $700 billion. He said he'd be "hard pressed" to support a debt limit increase without those conditions.

"I think a lot of the skepticism that's out there is that people don't believe that Washington can ever actually control its spending," Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, said in an interview. "I share their skepticism."

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Republican lawmakers who relied on tea party support to drive their historic success in 2010 midterm election would pay a political price for voting to increase the debt limit — even if the vote is paired with trillions of dollars in cuts.

"What's the point of a debt ceiling if you continue to raise it?" asked Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the national Tea Party Express. "Not only should we not be raising the debt ceiling, we should be lowering the debt ceiling."

If Medicare reimbursement rates continue on their current trajectory and Washington extends income tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the nation's debt would grow to represent 87 percent of its economy by 2020, up from 62 percent this year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Under that scenario, spiraling interest payments would push the debt to 185 percent of the gross domestic product by 2035 — a level the CBO calls unsustainable.

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