WASHINGTON — Easy for them to say: Cut spending, no matter what. Don't let the government borrow any more. Shut it down if you have to. While the cast of potential White House contenders tells Congress to get tough, drawing lines in the sand is risky for lawmakers who have to live with the consequences.
Many remember what happened more than two years ago when House conservatives bolted from their Republican president and leadership to defeat a $700 billion rescue bill for the nation's financial system. The Dow Jones industrials plunged 777 points, the most ever for a single day. Lawmakers had second thoughts, and four days later 58 of them, including 25 Republicans, switched sides to pass it.
Many Republicans paid a huge political price, losing re-election last year as furious tea partyers made how lawmakers voted on the bank bailout the single biggest litmus test of their conservatism.
However dangerous such brinksmanship is for lawmakers – and the country – it offers White House hopefuls the opportunity to criticize Washington spending while portraying themselves as the commonsense alternatives.
"We had a partial government shutdown in Minnesota and the world didn't come to an end," former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a recent interview. "And so you don't want to have that be your goal. But sometimes . when it's appropriate and you're standing on the right principles, there needs to be strong conviction and sometimes a showdown."
Other would-be White House contenders are railing against a Congress poised to pile on new debt, calling it irresponsible and a symptom of an out-of-touch Washington. As they watch, leaders of the two parties accuse each other of trying to bring about a government shutdown that they can then blame on one another.
"The shutdown's not good for anybody," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in an interview. "I think the shutdown . needs to be viewed as getting the attention of the powers that be that America and the American people are done with government just playing the gimmicks of accounting and spending more money and saying 'we didn't have a choice.'
"By gosh, you've got a choice. Make the choice," Huckabee intones. "Draw a line in the sand. For once in your lives, show that you've got the political cojones to stand up and be counted."
The federal government, now borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar it spends, will reach its debt limit this spring, necessitating Congress to approve a bigger credit line to cover spending already approved. Both President Barack Obama and GOP House Speaker John Boehner have urged raising the debt limit, but some Republicans want to use the threat of a failed vote to demand future spending cuts.
"To me, the debt ceiling is a tool," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. "This is a tool to get spending cuts and to make the left and anyone else understand the debt ceiling is going to go up when we have a plan that puts us on a path . that starts making the cuts."
Without the increase to the debt limit, the government would be in a position to default on its financial obligations, stop paying for some programs and send the global economy into a free fall. The specter of an unchanged debt ceiling is also a pressure point for Republicans looking to cut spending.
"There are a lot of people, though, who are saying, 'Shut her down, if that's what it takes,'" said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "Let it be for a week or two there, this message that is sent to our politicians who are so tone deaf to what the people of America are saying."
Calling for balanced budgets and cuts is easy for most of the field. Most are former governors who had to balance their budgets by law; only Barbour remains in office. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, is the only Washington incumbent seriously weighing a bid and she is on board to force cuts.
"It's time to force our elected officials to stop spending cold turkey, and we can start by making sure they do not raise the debt ceiling," she told her supporters.
Bachmann also blamed Democrats for fears of a shutdown.
"That's a bugaboo that the liberals right now are trying to throw out to scare the American people. No one is going to agree to a government shutdown. That will not happen. So let's just take that off the table," she told Newsmax, a conservative online publication.
Republicans hope their strategy will force Democrats to explain why they want a larger credit card without first cutting government spending. Democrats aren't making it easy. They're on the verge of agreeing to some temporary cuts endorsed by Obama while putting off until later decisions that might make a real dent in the government's annual deficits.
With Obama proposing a $3.7 trillion budget for next year and Republicans demanding deep cuts, the situation gives would-be White House contenders a chance to earn the public's attention at a point when their campaigns are still coming together.
And no one ever lost votes by criticizing Washington.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney blames Obama for "frightening new levels of federal spending and deficits."
"I've never seen an enterprise in more desperate need of a turnaround than the U.S. government," Romney said. "A vote on raising the debt ceiling has to be accompanied by a major effort to restructure and reduce the size of government."
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a White House budget director for President George W. Bush, said Republicans should extract "eight pounds of flesh in the form of major spending cuts" as part of any deal to raise the $14.3 trillion ceiling on the government's debt.
Barbour points to GOP governors' records balancing their states' books, noting that he cut Mississippi's spending by 9.4 percent last year.
But Barbour also supports raising the debt ceiling. "America would suffer enormous consequences," he said in a recent interview with Fox News. "The dollar is the currency of the world; it won't be if we default."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is poised to begin a White House bid in the coming weeks, encouraged lawmakers to raise the debt limit – but not without first extracting the spending cuts they promised during the midterm elections.
"Another shutdown of the federal government is not an ideal result, but for House Republicans, breaking their word would be far worse," he wrote over the weekend in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
Gingrich is well aware of a similar faceoff with a Democratic White House that resulted in the government shutdowns in 1995. At the time, President Bill Clinton blamed the shutdown on Republicans and marched toward re-election a year later.