WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint, who has wrought chaos in Congress over earmarks, immigration and health care, is preparing to launch a crusade that would make those fights look tame.
DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, is vowing to block any vote on raising the U.S. debt ceiling unless Congress moves to amend the Constitution by banning future federal deficits.
"I will oppose any attempt to vote to raise the limit on our $14 trillion debt until Congress passes the balanced-budget amendment," DeMint told McClatchy.
DeMint's stance puts him on a collision course with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who's warned congressional leaders of cataclysmic consequences if Congress fails to authorize a higher debt limit by mid-May, when he predicts the current $14.3 trillion ceiling will be reached.
"Defaulting on legal obligations of the United States would lead to sharply higher interest rates and borrowing costs, declining home values and reduced retirement savings for Americans," Geithner wrote last week in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover," Geithner wrote.
Geithner told a Washington conference of European and American economists Thursday that he'd met privately with GOP lawmakers in recent days and expressed confidence that Congress will raise the debt ceiling — as it's done 10 times in the last decade.
DeMint pooh-poohs Geithner's warnings as overblown and points to financial crises in Greece, Ireland and Portugal as omens of far greater calamity to come if the United States continues to amass debt.
"Any negative impact on the credit markets due to failure to raise the debt limit is only a small picture of what's going to happen if Congress doesn't stop spending money we don't have and balance the budget," DeMint said.
Gaining congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment may not be so far-fetched.
Such an amendment barely failed in 1995, the last time Congress voted on it, clearing the two-thirds constitutional hurdle with 300 House votes and falling just short in the Senate with 65 votes.
Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett said the nation's escalating debt — which just exceeded the annual gross national product for the first time in U.S. history — puts the wind at the backs of DeMint and other proponents of a balanced-budget amendment.
"My guess is that it has a better chance now because everybody wants to do something about the debt without really doing it," Barnett said. "A balanced-budget amendment allows you to vote for something without requiring you to cut anything."
The mounting U.S. debt — and the gathering political storm over increasing how much the government can borrow — has led President Barack Obama to apologize for his 2006 vote as a senator against raising the government's debt ceiling.
Now DeMint wants to turn the tables on Obama, under whom the debt has increased by $3.6 trillion. It rose by $4.9 trillion under President George W. Bush.
"Unless we pass a balanced-budget amendment that forces us to stop borrowing by lowering spending instead of raising taxes, we will stay on the current spending path that will lead to bankruptcy and economic collapse," DeMint said in the interview.
Congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment, however, wouldn't guarantee enactment.
It could suffer a similar fate as the Equal Rights Amendment, which Congress passed in 1972 to bar sexual discrimination. But the ERA suffered a slow, years-long death when three-fourths of the states failed to ratify it.
Having just reached a last-minute deal on current-year spending after days of brinksmanship, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are already embarked on a potentially nuclear game of chicken over the debt ceiling.
House Speaker John Boehner, saying he lacks the GOP votes to pass a standalone debt ceiling bill, stopped short of backing DeMint's demand for a balanced-budget amendment first.
But the Ohio Republican said his party's House members "won't roll over" on the debt ceiling and will demand major concessions from Obama and allied congressional Democrats.
"There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," Boehner told supporters at a Connecticut fundraiser last week.
That and similar salvos from Boehner prompted a sharp rebuke from Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democrats' No. 3 leader.
"The speaker seems to be testing out how far he can venture onto a frozen lake before the ice breaks," Schumer said. "He should listen to business leaders who are telling him to watch his step. Messing around with the debt ceiling just to satisfy the tea party will lead to higher interest rates and an economic cataclysm."
Schumer cited accounts, first reported by Politico, that Boehner has been calling business executives and getting clear directives to raise the debt ceiling so as not to spook domestic and foreign investors about the U.S. government's fiscal stability.
Seeking to soften his lone-wolf image, DeMint now stresses that all 47 Republican senators back a balanced-budget amendment.
It's an entirely separately question whether other GOP lawmakers will walk the plank with him and demand the amendment as the price for raising the debt ceiling.
So far, only two first-term Republicans — Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah — have gone that far.
All 47 Republican senators support a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. The measure would impose more sweeping changes than the balanced-budget amendment that narrowly failed to pass Congress in 1995:
- The president's budget plan to Congress must not require deficit spending.
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