Bigger debt battle could loom

For Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, it’s over the cliff, back up again – and now, on to the ceiling.

A day after Congress turned back from the “fiscal cliff” that would have led to higher taxes for most Americans, local Republicans – some of whom seem to have supported the last-minute deal only begrudgingly – said Wednesday that they’re preparing for an even higher-stakes debt battle in the coming weeks.

And the next fight, state Republicans threatened, could end with the U.S. government closed for business.

“We’re going to have that fight on spending. And it’s going to occur sometime in February,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, said.

Tuesday’s deal, passed by the Senate two hours after the New Year began and by the House of Representatives later that day, raised taxes on individuals making more than $400,000 a year but cemented earlier income tax rates for everyone else.

Although some conservatives in Congress derided the bill for raising taxes on the wealthy while failing to cut spending, central Pennsylvania representatives found a silver lining.

“I think it was a good bill overall,” Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-5th District, said of the later-than-last-minute deal. “Any time you can prevent taxes going up for 99 percent of Americans, that is a good bill and a good night.”

Press releases from the Pennsylvania Republican Party echoed that sentiment, highlighting the bill’s indefinite tax-cut extension for the middle class rather than its tax increase for wealthier Americans.

Thompson and Shuster praised the bill for solidifying 10-year-old tax cuts, while acknowledging that their ultimate goal – slashing government spending – has yet to be attained.

“Last night was not the place to have that fight,” Shuster said.

The state’s entire congressional delegation, Democrat and Republican, voted for the agreement.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., whom Shuster praised as a “chief negotiator” of the deal, blamed a hostile president, a Democrat-led Senate and an array of time-sensitive laws for his party’s inability to include spending cuts.

“We end up with our backs against the wall on Dec. 31 at midnight. … We didn’t have the power to stop all of the tax increases. Against all that, I wasn’t going to be able to get my way,” Toomey said.

Instead, Republicans intend to get their way in two months, when negotiations over raising the country’s debt ceiling could turn into a repeat of the 2011 battle that nearly shut down the federal government.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he won’t tolerate Republicans’ refusal to raise the ceiling, the government-imposed upper limit for the national debt. The country reportedly reached the limit over the New Year’s holiday.

“I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed,” Obama said in televised remarks.

Pennsylvania Republicans disregarded Obama’s statements, instead repeating demands to force spending cuts under the threat of a government shutdown.

It could be a bitter, high-stakes fight, they said Wednesday.

“I look forward to those fights. That’s not something that upsets me. I think it’s exciting,” Thompson said.

But Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat and one of the bill’s 89 Senate supporters, said he saw the agreement as a rare example of legislative cooperation – one that he hoped would continue with the coming debt talks.

“I hope folks would consider the ramifications for a shutdown,” Casey said. “Unfortunately … we’re going to have these difficult battles.”

Some suggested the past week’s chaos could be the norm for the new Congress: frequent, repetitive battles as bills delay the inevitable a few months at a time.

Asked Wednesday why the fiscal cliff deal came so late, even after weeks of near-constant negotiations, Shuster laughed.

“It’s democracy,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.