Congress headed toward another staredown over budget

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., appears in this photo dated Wednesday, May 18, 2011. A staunch conservative, Kline also has a close relationship with House Speaker John Boehner. He's also been a reliable vote for past debt ceiling and spending bills that were unpopular with the GOP's tea party wing. But unlike many in his caucus, Kline isn't demanding a repeal or delay of the 2010 healthcare law.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

The U.S. House is set to approve a Republican-backed measure today that will keep the federal government funded but defund the 2010 federal healthcare overhaul.

It's one of a series of fiscal fights occurring on Capitol Hill. But the main event is a likely vote to increase the government's borrowing level -- known as the debt limit.

Once routine legislative act, the vote has become a high wire act with potentially dangerous consequences, thanks to the changing nature of American politics.

One of the lawmakers to watch in the coming days Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents Minnesota's 2nd District.

A staunch conservative, Kline also has a close relationship with House Speaker John Boehner. He's also been a reliable vote for past debt ceiling and spending bills that were unpopular with the GOP's tea party wing.

On the issue of whether the House will eventually approve a government funding bill that's also agreeable to the Senate and President Barack Obama, Kline hints that he'll again be a yes vote.

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"I have said on a number of times that it is very important for me to not 'shut down the government' because that means you have troops in combat that you're not paying," said Kline, a former Marine colonel.

"The Republicans in the House are looking for a way to get themselves into the minority,"

But Kline said Republicans won't agree to let the government borrow more money without extracting policy changes.

"We're not just going to give a carte blanche to raise the debt limit," he said.

Unlike many in his caucus, including U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Kline isn't demanding a repeal or delay of the 2010 healthcare law -- though he'd certainly take that.

"I think the real answer to the debt limit is to get some agreement from Senate Democrats and more specifically the White House that you've got to do something about entitlements," Kline said in a reference to Social Security and Medicare.

In particular, Kline is interested in ideas such as a higher retirement age.

When asked whether it's appropriate to push for such complex changes with just weeks to go before the federal government runs out borrowing room, Kline said, "yes."

"I think it's a better place to have this fight," he said.

That's the position of most Republicans. They want concessions from President Obama to raise the debt ceiling -- even though tax and spending policies voted on by Congress are what drives the government's need to borrow.

Democrats say such fights are a dangerous distraction.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is shown here at the University of Minnesota Duluth Kirby Student Center Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Duluth, Minn. Klobuchar released a report Wednesday highlighting the dangers to the U.S. economy of breaching the debt limit. In the worst case scenarios, interest rates and unemployment could spike and the stock market collapse.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a report Wednesday highlighting the dangers to the U.S. economy of breaching the debt limit. In the worst case scenarios, interest rates and unemployment could spike and the stock market collapse.

"We're sick of tired of having to organize and playing these games when these guys should just be getting this done and moving onto the immigration bill," Klobuchar said.

Some Republicans agree.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel, who represented Minnesota's 3rd District in Congress for 20 years, is not impressed with the GOP's hardball tactics.

"The Republicans in the House are looking for a way to get themselves into the minority," he said.

Frenzel said when he retired in 1991, debt limit votes were routine and didn't keep the markets on edge.

One of the things that's changed that is the Affordable Care Act, said Vin Weber, another former House Republican from Minnesota.

Weber said that having lost the legislative fight in 2010, his party has fixated on how to undo the law, even though Republicans control part of the federal government.

"It's become a litmus test of virtually everything that's quite destructive," he said. "If you can't repeal Obamacare, which they can't, you shouldn't do anything; you should shut the government down."

Weber points to polls that show Americans' trust in institutions is falling, which makes them more receptive to politicians who promise to shake up Washington. He notes that grassroots activists are unforgiving these days and said they and outside spending groups push lawmakers from both parties to resist cooperation.

"I'm not going to argue that it isn't screwed up in Washington, but I'm going to say that at the end of the day that Congress does reflect at least something going on back in their districts," he said.

Carleton College professor Steven Schier said there's a big political risk to such confrontations. He notes that Minnesota Republicans shut down the state government in 2011 in a confrontation with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and were swept out of office a year later.

"The Republicans have to decide how far do they go in trying to satisfy their activist base at the risk of imperiling the broader electoral prospects for their party in 2014 and 2016," Schier said.

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to think they'll come out ahead no matter how these fiscal fights end. That may help to explain why polls show three out of four people disapprove of the job Congress is doing.