WASHINGTON — Are Republican lawmakers deliberately stalling the economic recovery to hurt President Barack Obama's re-election chances? Some top Democrats say yes, pointing to GOP stances on the debt limit and other issues that they claim are causing unnecessary economic anxiety and retarding growth.
The latest Democratic complaint came after House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that when Congress raises the nation's borrowing cap in early 2013, he will again insist on big spending cuts to offset the increase. Boehner, R-Ohio, continues to reject higher tax rates, which Democrats demand from the wealthy.
That led Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to say Boehner is virtually assuring another debt-ceiling crisis as bad or worse than the one that shook financial markets nine months ago.
"The last thing the country needs is a rerun of last summer's debacle that nearly brought down our economy," Schumer said in a statement. In an interview, Schumer added: "I hope that the speaker is not doing this because he doesn't want to see the economy improve, because what he said will certainly rattle the markets."
Boehner responded in a statement: "Republicans have passed nearly 30 bills that would help small businesses create jobs and we are waiting on Senate Democrats to vote on these common-sense measures. The failure to act on these jobs bills, as well as our crushing debt burden, is undermining economic growth and job creation."
Democrats say Republicans loaded their jobs bills with provisions certain to doom them in the Senate, such as restrictions on unions and on regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Regardless of whether Schumer's suspicions are right, there's evidence that unceasing partisan gridlock and the prospect of big tax increases and spending cuts in January are causing some companies to postpone expansions. Even small economic slowdowns are bad news for Obama, who is seeking re-election amid high unemployment.
The Washington Post this past week compiled a list of military contractors, hospitals and universities that are delaying hires and bracing for cuts, partly because of fears that Washington's partisan divisions will not abate.
The most obvious showdown will happen soon after the Nov. 6 election. Unless a lame-duck Congress can make deals, the economy will suffer a double whammy of large tax increases and spending cuts, starting Jan. 1. The tax increases would hit virtually every working American and the spending cuts would affect military and domestic programs.
Economists say that what Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke calls a "fiscal cliff" could possibly lead to another severe recession.
On top of that, perhaps by late January or so, Congress and the president — be it Obama or Republican Mitt Romney — will again confront the need to raise the country's borrowing limit or else trigger a first-ever government failure to pay its debts. A partisan showdown over this issue last summer led to a downgrade in the nation's credit worthiness and a sharp stock market drop.
These crucial decisions will occur after the presidential election. But investors, planners and business owners make decisions about hiring, expansion and investments months in advance. The more they worry about a serious economic downturn in nine months or so, the more reluctant they are to expand operations and hire workers now.
"All that uncertainty has us cautious, and we're scaling back our hiring expectations," said Eric Remington, vice president of Kaman Corp., which recently canceled plans to hire 200 new workers at a defense aerospace plant in Jacksonville, Fla.
"The law is, the automatic cuts will take effect on Jan. 1," he said. "Everyone says, 'Don't worry, that won't happen.' But we've got a business to run, and we've got to plan."
Schumer and other top Democrats have said for months that GOP lawmakers may be trying to strangle the economic recovery for political reasons.
"Their strategy is to suffocate the economy for the sake of what they think will be a political victory," Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, wrote in an email to supporters last October, when Congress was debating a jobs bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his Republican counterpart was not cooperating on that legislation "in hopes that he can get my job, perhaps."
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, told The Associated Press last year that some GOP lawmakers, "through their intransigence, cleverly set up a situation for America's economy to fail, either by needlessly driving us to default, or needlessly driving us into massive public-sector layoffs."
Federal, state and local government layoffs have been under way for months. They may be necessary to reduce deficits and survive recessions. But they increase unemployment, a problem for any president seeking a second term.
Since February 2010, when the economy began consistently adding jobs, the private sector has gained 4.2 million positions. But federal, state and local governments during that time have cut more than 500,000 jobs.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California did not ascribe partisan motives to Boehner's latest warnings about the next debt ceiling showdown. But she said he may be unnecessarily hurting the economy. "It already can be damaging, just the fact that it's brought up," Pelosi told reporters Thursday.
Republicans say it's absurd to make such an accusation. They point to bipartisan efforts to pass jobs-creation bills, trade pacts and, after some arguments, an extension of the payroll tax cut that Obama originally had proposed for only one year.
GOP lawmakers want Congress to act this year to ensure that none of the Bush-era income tax cuts will expire, as scheduled, on Jan. 1. Such assurance, they say, could lead investors and business owners to start expanding and hiring now.
Democrats say the move, by itself, would increase the deficit dramatically. They want to end the tax cuts for the wealthiest and they note that the economy boomed during Bill Clinton's presidency, before the big tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were enacted.
Boehner's aides say the speaker supports tax law changes, including eliminating some loopholes and exemptions, that could result in greater revenue even if rates remain the same or are reduced.
As for the debt limit, "allowing America to default would be irresponsible," Boehner said Tuesday at an economic forum. "But it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process."
Democrats say that's precisely the type of economic saber-rattling that can frighten investors and employers, and damage Obama's re-election hopes. Boehner disagrees.
"I said that we should not wait until the 11th hour to address these issues," Boehner told reporters Thursday. "The only ones who are talking about drama or brinksmanship are my Democrat colleagues."
The danger of another credit-rating downgrade "comes from continued inaction on the deficit, and our piling debt," he said, not from "calls for action."