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Tea Party conservatives shift to fight over U.S. debt ceiling hike

U.S. Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) holds up a CD entitled "Solutions to Protect our Coast and Marsh" that he presented to BP CEO Tony
U.S. Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) holds up a CD entitled "Solutions to Protect our Coast and Marsh" that he presented to BP CEO Tony

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even as a touch of bipartisan bonhomie settles over Washington with the passage of a budget compromise, conservatives in Congress are planning their next attempt to rein in government spending when the U.S. bumps up against its borrowing limit in the spring.

Tea Party-oriented conservatives, who failed in efforts to stop the budget deal, say they may have a better chance at attaching new fiscal restraints to legislation raising the U.S. debt ceiling.

"There are a lot of people that would rather fight the battle of spending on the debt ceiling rather than the government funding bill," said Representative Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who leads the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of conservatives in the House of Representatives.

U.S. officials will be seeking congressional authorization for an increase in the debt limit some time in the spring, with the threat of a government default hanging over their heads.

It's a step Congress must take periodically that conservatives label as Exhibit A in Washington's addiction to deficit spending. They have waged two market-rattling fights over the borrowing limit since 2011, which resulted in Standard and Poor's downgrading the U.S. credit rating.

President Barack Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, reiterated Wednesday that Obama will refuse as he has in the past to negotiate over the debt ceiling.

But there are early signs, at least, that the Tea Party Republicans won't be as isolated as they were in the debate over the budget deal, when opponents of the deal were rebuffed by the House leadership.

Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican Budget Committee chairman who helped negotiate the spending deal, pointedly noted in a Fox News Sunday interview that he wants to get something in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and that Republicans would meet after the holidays to discuss possible demands.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he doubted that the House "or for that matter the Senate is willing to give the president a clean debt ceiling increase."

Scalise wants structural reforms to the so-called "mandatory" spending programs such as Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.

Some House Tea Party adherents are skeptical of the Republican leadership, though. "What I think our leadership has missed is how upset conservatives are with the party" over the budget deal, said Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican.

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson said some lawmakers, especially in the Republican-majority House, might want to use the debt ceiling as an opportunity to push again for changes in Obama's health care law following the program's disastrous website rollout.

"I actually think the American people expect that (lawmakers attach reforms to the debt ceiling)," Johnson said. "They don't want to see the debt burden increase on their kids and grandkids without doing something."

"There's a lot of fight left in us," said Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, another Republican associated with the Tea Party.

(Reporting By Susan Cornwell. Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)

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