POLITICS: PennAve

Don't expect a credit downgrade, S&P says before debt ceiling fight

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Congress,OMB,Debt Ceiling,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Budgets and Deficits,Government Shutdown

Standard & Poor's said it is not planning to change the nation's credit rating during the upcoming fight over the debt limit, an indication of how the pressure to cut the debt has diminished since 2011's debt ceiling standoff.

The credit ratings agency said in a note that "as long as it is short-lived, we do not anticipate the impasse to lead to a change in the sovereign rating."

S&P currently rates U.S. debt AA+ with a stable outlook. The rating was downgraded from AAA for the first time following the resolution of the debt ceiling standoff in 2011. S&P said that the $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction initially called for in the deal "fell short" of what was needed in the medium term.

S&P criticized the government once again for risking the possibility of the default, saying that "this sort of political brinkmanship is the dominant reason the rating is no longer AAA."

But S&P's warnings, which are not attached to a threat of another credit downgrade, attracted none of the attention that the agency did in 2011 when it first assigned a negative outlook to U.S. debt and then downgraded it.

This time around, the landscape surrounding the debt ceiling confrontation has changed. Although the debt subject to the limit has increased from roughly $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion, there is far less pressure to immediately cut spending to lower the debt.

In part, that is due to the Budget Control Act that resulted from the debt ceiling deal in 2011 and ultimately led to the broad-based spending cuts that have taken place this year through sequestration. Tax increases and a continued economic recovery have also lowered deficits.

In 2011, according to the Office of Management and Budget, the deficit was nearly $1.3 trillion. This year, the annual shortfall will fall to $642 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office's projections. Although the debt remains on an unsustainable trajectory in the long term, according to the CBO, the steep decline in the deficit has lessened the urgency surrounding the issue.

Gone, too, is the influence wielded in 2011 by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired a fiscal commission that President Obama created by executive order in 2010 to devise a plan for cutting deficits. Although the committee failed, Simpson and Bowles, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, became highly visible proponents of a so-called "grand bargain" between the two parties to address the debt. The two have not engaged in this year's fiscal battles.

The CBO expects that the debt, which currently stands at 73 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, will slowly decline in coming years. Over the long term, however, it will begin to grow again, eventually reaching 100 percent of GDP by 2038.

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