WASHINGTON -- Failing to raise the nation's debt ceiling would be less damaging than allowing the deficit to continue to swell, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said on Sunday, fueling a brewing battle over whether the government can take on more debt.
The Treasury is expected to hit its debt ceiling in May, at which point it will need authorization from Congress before it can take on additional loans. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told members of Congress the debt limit needs to be raised by early July to prevent the government from defaulting on its loans.
Leading economists say that failing to raise the debt limit could be disastrous for the economy, with major implications on markets worldwide. But some Republicans downplayed the effects of allowing the government to hit its debt limit, arguing on Sunday talk shows that concern about the hitting the debt ceiling is overblown.
"The debt limit doesn't really mean anything because we've always extended it," Sen. Coburn said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The Treasury secretary has the ability, even if this debt limit is not extended, to continue to pay interest on our loans. The idea that this is catastrophic is wrong -- what is catastrophic is to continue to spend money we don't have."
Freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) pointed to previous times Congress has voted against raising the debt limit and then approved an increase in the weeks that followed.
"Over the course of those few months when the debt ceiling wasn't raised, Armageddon didn't hit, the government paid its bills -- we've got enough government revenues to certainly pay, to service all of our debt," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"And the administration knows that," he added. "The administration's got to get serious and recognize that we're not just going to give them a vote to raise the debt ceiling unless they fundamentally change the way this city works."
Although the president has asked for a "clean" bill to raise the debt ceiling, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said they will not support an extension of the debt limit unless it comes with debt-reduction plans.
One idea being floated in the Capitol is to tie the bill to a report from the Senate's "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of senators working on long-term deficit reduction strategies. Members of the group, which is led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), have said they are nearing consensus on a plan, which may be unveiled when Congress returns from recess in May.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation" he would support a debt ceiling increase if it were tied to the "Gang of Six" report.
"I think the best play here is to have the bipartisan deficit commission report of the Gang of Six attached to the debt limit extension," Kirk said. "That would be huge cuts in the future spending of the United States that may be a good deal. Without that we should not send a blank check to the administration."
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the "Gang of Six," said he would not vote for a long-term extension of the debt ceiling unless a plan is in place to deal with the deficit. But he said he would approve a short-term extension to prevent the government from defaulting on its loans.
"I think it is critically important that we get a plan in place to get this debt under control," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I will vote for a short-term extension, because I think it would be catastrophic if we reneged on our debt, but it's got to have a long-term plan to deal with it."
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Sec. Geithner told Congress the debt limit needed to be raised by "early June" to prevent the government from defaulting on its loans. The article has been corrected to read "early July."