Looking down the legislative schedule, nearly everyone recognizes that a vote expected this spring to raise the country's debt ceiling will be an opportunity for posturing from critics of government debt and a test of the GOP's ability to govern responsibly. Raising the debt limit will allow the government to borrow enough money to fund its operations. Putative Speaker John Boehner is already encountering problems as he maneuvers his caucus toward the vote.
A decision not to raise the limit, supported by some conservative Republicans, including many associated with the Tea Party, would raise serious concerns about America's willingness to pay its debts but would do little to control spending. Such a move would be a step toward serious consequences, without actually trying to solve the underlying problems -- you can basically quantify the seriousness of new Republican members in the House of Representatives by counting how many want to cap the debt ceiling and how many are avoiding service on the appropriations committee: They like the grand gesture but want to avoid making actual decisions about government spending.
The more serious approach would be shelving the vote and putting it in the context of a broader budget negotiation, but skepticism from both sides -- especially of Republicans' ability to immediately propose a comprehensive new government spending plan -- suggests such a deal won't be ready in time for the vote soon after the next Congress begins in January.
-- Tim Fernholz