Debt limit may be biggest test for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership

While lawmakers enjoy a five-week summer recess, House Speaker Paul Ryan is preparing to face perhaps his speakership’s toughest challenge to date: increasing the country’s debt limit.

When they return to the Capitol after Labor Day, there will be just 12 working days for Congress to raise the debt ceiling before a deadline at the end of September to avert a first-ever default on the country’s loan payments.

Now it comes down to Congress to stop the possible financial crisis in its tracks before the deadline.

The GOP is facing an internal battle between moderates and conservatives, and any solution will almost certainly need support from Democrats.

A major pivot for Ryan?

Now that Republicans have control of the big three — the House, the Senate and the White House — if the GOP has decided to pursue the route of a clean debt ceiling increase — without requiring spending cuts — that would be a major policy shift.

In 2011, Ryan, then the chairman of the House Budget Committee, took a hard line during the debt ceiling debate, leading House Republicans in a standoff against President Obama and Senate Democrats.

Republicans, who had just taken control of the House, warned that Congress shouldn’t raise the government’s borrowing limit without making corresponding cuts to federal spending because government was adding too much to the country’s credit card tab.

At the time, the annual deficit was projected to peak at a record $1.5 trillion, primarily due to the Great Recession and the stimulus package enacted by a Democratic-controlled Congress and Obama in 2009.

Ryan’s calls for cuts in federal spending rang loud and clear for months leading up to the debt ceiling deadline, saying in one televised interview, “We got to have a down payment on the debt and deficit, and what we are saying is, for every dollar you want to raise the debt limit, just cut more than a dollar’s worth of spending. It is not too much to ask.”

Efforts to raise the debt ceiling amid divided power in Washington stalled as Republicans pressured Democrats to make cuts to federal programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. Liberals, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, insisted on a clean increase at the time.

In the end, Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut spending by approximately $917 billion over a decade and raised the debt ceiling by $900 billion. It also set up the so-called…

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