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Brown wants ‘reforms’ tied to debt vote

Senator seeks overhaul on spending; conservatives may filibuster

LAWMAKER’S TERMS Senator Scott Brown is among lawmakers insisting on spending cuts as a precondition of raising the ceiling. LAWMAKER’S TERMS
Senator Scott Brown is among lawmakers insisting on spending cuts as a precondition of raising the ceiling.
By Theo Emery and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / April 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Senator Scott Brown said yesterday he remains opposed to raising the nation’s cap on borrowing unless the vote is tied to “serious spending reforms,’’ despite warnings from economists that not raising the cap would devastate the US economy and shake markets across the globe.

The senator’s office declined to detail what changes he seeks and whether they involve cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or defense spending. He and other moderate Republican senators could play pivotal roles if conservatives decide to filibuster the debt vote in an effort to extract spending concessions on such entitlement programs.

That vote could be the next confrontation between Democrats and Republicans over how to cut spending in the short term and reshape policy on entitlements and taxes in the long term. Treasury officials warn the vote must be taken within the next three months before the nation passes the current $14.3 trillion ceiling.

A failure to raise the limit could be catastrophic for the US economy, said some economists, warning lawmakers not to use such a vital vote to score political points. Pushing the nation into default would sharply raise interest rates, repel foreign lenders, and make it more difficult and expensive for the government to pay for essential services.

“There’s room for reasonable arguments about where budgets should go. There’s not room for reasonable arguments about the possibility of default,’’ said Harvard economist Lawrence H. Summers, who also headed the US Treasury in the Clinton administration and chaired the National Economic Council for President Obama.

“Those who would propose to seriously entertain default are the equivalent of those who would invite children to play with dynamite, gasoline, and matches,’’ he said.

Most observers agree that a default is unlikely and that Republicans are using the vote to leverage long-term spending cuts from Democrats. As the vote nears, the partisan sniping, mixed with these dire warnings, is only expected to rise.

On Monday, lawmakers and investors got a sense of the perils of not addressing ballooning deficits. When the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s took the unprecedented step of revising the nation’s risk outlook to “negative’’ in light of the wide partisan gulf on the debt problem, US markets tumbled.

Both Democrats and Republicans have advanced plans to address the problem over the long term. Republican lawmakers in the House last week backed a plan by Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, to cut the growth of the deficit by about $4.4 trillion over 10 years through cuts and overhauls of Medicare and Medicaid.

Obama last week countered with a plan that would cut $4 trillion over 12 years through spending cuts and tax increases on the richest Americans, while keeping the entitlement programs largely intact.

Before those widely divergent plans can be advanced, however, Congress must settle the debt ceiling dilemma. Brown is among lawmakers insisting on spending cuts as a precondition of raising the ceiling. Yesterday, his office released a terse statement when he was asked to comment on Standard & Poor’s warning.

“We should not raise the debt limit without serious spending reforms,’’ Brown said in a statement similar to one he released several weeks ago. Brown’s spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, offered no elaboration.

Speaking to reporters about the budget after a tour of a Massachusetts factory yesterday, Brown commended Ryan and Obama and said he would “work with any person of goodwill to move forward and address those very real issues.’’ He did not mention the debt limit.

“We are in very real trouble. As I’ve said before, everything’s on the table when it comes to these issues, and you have a lot of good people who are trying to come together to find a solution,’’ he said.

Statements linking debt and budget reforms have become a common refrain in the high-stakes bluffing over the debt ceiling.

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, applauded Brown, saying he’s sending the right signal.

“I think that position makes sense, especially if in the end it’s a bluff. I think there is every possibility that it will be possible to get some concessions on spending as part of the votes for the debt ceiling,’’ he said.

Brown’s vote will be closely watched in the run-up to the vote. The freshman senator joined other moderate Republicans and Democrats last week to pass a compromise cutting some domestic programs while funding the government through the rest of the fiscal year. Yet many conservatives and Tea Party-fueled freshmen representatives insist the deal lacked teeth, and they vowed to make a stand on the debt ceiling vote.

One Republican senator, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has threatened to mount a filibuster if Democrats don’t agree to deep concessions. Such a move would force backers of raising the debt ceiling to enlist Republicans in an effort to break the filibuster.

Most members of the Massachusetts delegation say they will vote to raise the debt limit out of necessity, but decry the posturing over the vote. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said “we need a serious, adult debate, not political posturing and ideological gamesmanship.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.