Economy & Budget

Portman demands Obama back off quest to end debt ceilings

Portman demands Obama back off quest to end debt ceilings

The Buckeye State senator who coached W. Mitt Romney for his debates with President Barack Obama sent a Dec. 5 letter urging the president to give up his drive for unlimited borrowing authority with or without a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.

“You have said that substantial increases in the national debt are ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unpatriotic,’ and you once pledged to cut the budget deficit in half. We agree that Washington must rein in the debt, which is one reason we strongly oppose your proposal to eliminate Congress’s role in establishing a federal debt limit,” said Sen. Robert J. Portman, the junior senator from Ohio credited with the former Massachusetts governor’s debate success, in the letter signed by 44 of his GOP colleagues.

The fiscal cliff is the term of art for the expiration of tax rates enacted since 2001, and a variety of tax deductions coupled with automatic spending cuts to both social services and military programs slated to take effect Jan. 1.

The fiscal cliff was part of the 2011 Budget Control Act, a law negotiated between Obama and the GOP’s Capitol Hill leadership. The law established the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or “Super Committee” of senators and congressmen charged with resolving the federal government’s fiscal problems.

As part of the budget agreement, Congress allowed the president enough borrowing authority to support government operations until after the Nov. 6 presidential election, roughly $2 trillion. The debt ceiling is $16.994 trillion and the national debt as of Dec. 4 is $16.347 trillion.

“Mr. President, while serving in the United States Senate, you acknowledged the Congress’s important role in establishing the debt limit when you voted against raising it in 2006,” Portman said.

“We believe that preserving Congress’s role in setting the debt limit is necessary to encourage deficit reduction and uphold our constitutional tradition of legislative control over borrowing,” he said.

A Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the crafting and circulation of the letter said Portman and other Republican senators were stunned by the Nov. 29 presentation by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. In addition to new spending and tax increases, the treasury secretary proposed that Congress cede to the president the unchecked authority to borrow as he sees fit.

Geithner’s proposal would have eliminated congressional oversight of the federal debt, he said.

Portman spearheaded a letter sent to  Obama to underscore the need for any deficit reduction deal to ensure that the people’s elected representatives will continue to have a say over the nation’s debt limit, the staffer said.

In the letter Portman said, “Nearly every significant deficit reduction law of the past 27 years has been linked to a debt limit debate.  For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation.”

The senator said the president needs to understand that historically raising the debt ceiling was not routine. “Before World War I, Congress often authorized borrowing on a case-by-case basis. Over time, Congress transitioned to setting fixed borrowing allocations that could be used to finance full categories of federal borrowing, until the first modern debt limit was set at $45 billion in 1939.”

The Republican leader in the Senate, Sen. A. Mitchell McConnell Jr. (Kentucky), said after meeting with Geithner that he was very disappointed the president’s proposal lacked an appreciation of the bi-partisan power balance in Washington.

McConnell, one of the 44 who signed the Portman letter, said, “We have a hard deadline here and the only reason we will go over the cliff is if the White House continues to fail to show the leadership necessary to get an agreement that reflects the compromise the American people expected when they elected a divided government.”

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