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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Lawmakers in Washington D.C. have heard the warning for months: the nation's credit card will top out this spring, and so the debt limit must be raised. Now, there's even more pressure on the debate after a major bond rating agency lowered its outlook on U.S. government borrowing.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports on the options for lawmakers in this high-stakes vote.

AUDIE CORNISH: House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor often describes the upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling as yet another bite of the apple for conservatives who want another shot at government spending cuts, and finding out that the bond rating agency, Standard and Poor's, is warning the United States about federal deficits hasn't changed his mind.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Majority Leader): We in the House hear you loud and clear, S&P.

CORNISH: Here's Cantor speaking at the telecommunications company Qualcomm in San Diego yesterday.

Rep. CANTOR: My hope is that wake-up call will spur Washington into acting in a serious way, not just to say we're kicking the can and doing things the way we've always done them.

CORNISH: Action for Republicans means using the debt-limit vote as leverage to get the Democrats and the White House to sign on to more spending cuts or even a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Freshman Republican Raul Labrador of Idaho foreshadowed the pressure at a Tea Party rally last month.

Representative RAUL LABRADOR (Republican, Idaho): We have been told that we have to act like adults. If acting like an adult is going to lead to $1.5 trillion in deficit spending; if acting like an adult is going to lead to $3.6 billion every single day that we're borrowing, I would rather be a child.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CORNISH: Labrador voted against the budget deal that prevented a government shutdown. If enough conservatives vote against raising the debt limit, GOP leaders would have to look to Democrats.

But Democrats want a so-called clean bill on raising the debt limit - no attachments, no spending cuts.

Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont called anything else hostage-taking.

Representative PETER WELCH (Democrat, Vermont): Should we allow this forum of America paying its bills to become hostage to the competing political points of view on how best to get our fiscal house in order?

CORNISH: In fact, Democrats did the same thing when they voted against raising the debt limit to protest the policies of the Bush administration in 2006, but now, more than a hundred Democrats have signed on to a letter by Welch calling for a clean bill. Welch says there are other venues for spending cuts.

Rep. WELCH: There's going to be 12 appropriations bills. There's going to be another election. So there is a time and a place, but if we inject that into this question of whether we actually honor our obligation to pay our bills, we're going to do real damage to the American economy.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, in the Senate, there's a bipartisan bill that takes another approach. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Claire McCaskill have introduced legislation that would cap government spending starting in 2013. Corker says it purposely doesn't say how to do it, just that it be done.

Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): Let's first agree where we're going because we tend to divide up very, very quickly when we jump first to the solution. So it's best for everyone to first agree what is an appropriate spending level.

CORNISH: But if the Corker-McCaskill deal doesn't catch on, Senator Corker says he too will vote against raising the debt limit, unless there's some evidence from lawmakers that Washington will change its free-spending ways.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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