By JIM KUHNHENN, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — The political fight that took the nation to the verge of defaulting on its debts last year is back, overshadowed by "fiscal cliff" disputes but with consequences far graver than looming tax hikes and steep spending cuts.

The government is on track to hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit later this month. And while the Treasury can keep the government functioning through early next year, President Barack Obama is bluntly insisting that any deal on the fiscal cliff include an end to brinkmanship on the debt ceiling.

Obama is demanding tax rate hikes on the rich, using the prospect of a worse alternative and the momentum of his re-election as leverage. But the debt ceiling gives Republicans a powerful weapon to extract further deficit reduction too, contributing to the current stalemate.

Both sides have warned that plunging off the fiscal cliff – letting income taxes increase for all and kicking in deep cuts in defense and other programs – could rattle the fragile economic recovery.

But failure to raise the borrowing cap would leave the government unable to pay its debts. That would roil the stock market, result in a likely downgrade in the nation's credit rating, increase interest rates and threaten another financial crisis. Last year's fight prompted Standard & Poor's to reduce the AAA rating for government bonds.

That risk gives Republicans the weight to counter Obama in fiscal cliff talks and demand that the president agree to greater spending reductions or savings from programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says any increase in the debt limit must be matched by greater amounts of deficit reduction. Boehner, who has been leading the fiscal cliff talks for Republicans, spoke with Obama by telephone Wednesday, signaling the possible start of fresh talks to avoid the fiscal cliff. Specifics of their discussion were not released.
Speaking to corporate executives the same day, Obama set down a hard line.

"If Congress in any way suggests that they're going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation – which, by the way, we had never done in our history until we did it last year – I will not play that game," the president said.

"Because we've got to break that habit before it starts," he said.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on CNBC on Wednesday, "We are not prepared to have the American economy held hostage to periodic threats that Republicans will force the country to default on our obligations."

To that end, Obama is asking to make permanent a mechanism used to implement last year's $2.2 trillion debt limit hike. That mechanism, designed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., requires the president to notify Congress of the need to lift the debt ceiling and request an increase in the borrowing cap. The request would not require congressional approval, but Congress could pass a resolution to disapprove the increase, and the president could veto any such move.

McConnell called Obama's proposal "a power grab that has no support here."

"It gives the president of the United States unilateral power to raise the limit on the federal credit card, the so-called debt ceiling, whenever he wants, for as much as he wants," McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sought a vote on the president's debt limit scheme on Thursday but was blocked by McConnell, who objected to subjecting the idea to a simple majority tally instead of the 60 votes typically required to pass controversial legislation. But Democrats pointed out that McConnell had pressed for a vote just Thursday morning and had introduced the measure.

"The minority leader filibustered his own bill," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

Last year, Republicans agreed to the debt ceiling scheme only after the White House agreed to steep cuts in spending that virtually matched the increase in the debt ceiling, a deal Obama is not offering to make this time.

"To demand a political price for Congress to do its job responsibly, which is to ensure that the United States of America pays its bills, would be wildly irresponsible," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

In seeking to eliminate the debt ceiling as a recurring confrontation, Obama and his administration have the support of congressional Democrats and some key members of the business community.

John Engler, the former three-term Republican governor of Michigan and now president of the Business Roundtable, has called for a five-year extension of the debt ceiling, arguing against its use as a bargaining chip for deficit reduction.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics and an occasional adviser to lawmakers, said what to do with the debt ceiling needed to be resolved this month. He said he preferred getting rid of the debt ceiling in exchange for a requirement that increases in the debt limit by matched by a certain amount of deficit reduction, either through spending cuts or revenue increases.

If not resolved, he said, "it's going to be nothing but trouble going forward, given how the parties are working with each other."

Some constitutional experts believe Obama could sidestep a battle with Congress by raising the debt ceiling by executive order. Many legal scholars cite Section 4 of the 14th Amendment as an argument against congressional approval of debt ceiling increases. It states, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

But the White House has rejected that option, both in the midst of debt ceiling discussions last year and again this week.

"This administration does not believe the 14th amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling," Carney said Thursday.

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  • Prison Reform

    The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly <a href="http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html" target="_hplink">five times higher than the global average</a>. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit. Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.

  • End Of The Drug War

    The federal government spends more than <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20072096.html" target="_hplink">$15 billion a year</a> investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates. Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield <a href="http://canorml.org/background/CA_legalization2.html" target="_hplink">up to $18 billion annually</a> for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.

  • Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma

    The U.S. has <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/01/us-healthcare-costs-sb-idUSTRE5504Z320090601" target="_hplink">higher health care costs than any other country</a>. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends. Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries. Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, <a href="http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/intellectual_property_2004_09.pdf" target="_hplink">Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to</a> on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards. These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/02/barack-obama-politics_n_1847947.html" target="_hplink">guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards</a> in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.

  • Offshore Tax Havens

    The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about <a href="http://www.ctj.org/pdf/stopact.pdf" target="_hplink">$100 billion a year</a> in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.

  • Deprivatize Government Contract Work

    In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">increased by millions</a>. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">nearly double</a> what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.

  • Print More Money

    There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/underwear-sales-growth-economy_n_1952214.html" target="_hplink">Okay, there's no such saying</a>. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when <a href="http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/researchtrends/asset_upload_file448_16434.pdf" target="_hplink">10.8 million</a> homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy. Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57555780/student-loan-debt-nears-$1-trillion-is-it-the-new-subprime/" target="_hplink">$1 trillion</a> in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates. Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.

  • Print Less Money

    The government prints a <em>lot</em> of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, <a href="http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/nativeamerican/" target="_hplink">Sacagawea</a>.

  • Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets

    The government spends <a href="http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/ice-slow-to-embrace-alternatives-to-immigrant-detention.php" target="_hplink"> $122 per person, per day</a> detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person. For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.

  • Financial Speculation Tax

    Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet. What's more, this tax could raise about <a href="http://www.ips-dc.org/media/why_a_financial_transaction_tax" target="_hplink">$150 billion a year</a> for the federal government.

  • Carbon Tax

    Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, <a href="http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/carbon-tax-mckibbin-morris-wilcoxen" target="_hplink">according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution</a>. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.