Congress has been focused on student loans, farm bills and immigration on Capitol Hill lately, but that’s about to change.

When Congress returns from its August recess, members will be forced to deal with two familiar, yet fickle foes: the debt ceiling and a government shutdown.

President Obama is standing firm on his “no negotiations” stance regarding the debt ceiling. On the other hand, a majority of Republicans say any deal to raise the debt limit must include major spending cuts in order to ensure that – as Cong. Tom Cotton (R) puts it – “we won’t be right back here again.”

“A debt-ceiling increase must come with real, concrete reforms to stop President Obama’s reckless deficit spending and Obamacare,” said Cotton, who is expected to announce next week that he’ll challenge Sen. Mark Pryor (D) in 2014.

The Treasury Department has not set a specific date as to when the U.S. will likely reach its borrowing cap, but estimates call for sometime after the Labor Day holiday.

The debt limit has risen from $5.5 trillion in 1996 to $16.394 trillion at the end of the 2012 fiscal year, according to a Congressional Research Service report. It has been raised 10 times since 2001.

On the government shutdown front, Democrats want to continue current funding levels, while Republicans want cuts. Eventually, Congress has to pass what’s known as a continuing resolution, which keeps the federal government funded, by Oct. 1 (the end of the fiscal year) or the federal government could be headed for a possible shutdown…again.

These two issues will be key to 2014 success for both parties, especially for Republicans. Right now, they find themselves in a pretty good position for next year’s midterm elections, particularly in the House, where some experts expect to see the GOP expand its current 17-seat majority.

The Senate isn’t out of the realm of possibility either, though it will no doubt be a tougher road. Senate Republicans will need to steal 5 or 6 seats – dependent upon the outcome of New Jersey’s special Senate election – from Democrats to capture the majority. It’s doable, but then again, they only needed three in 2012 and ended up losing two.

But it’s also the GOP’s to lose.

Since the Tea Party’s 2010 emergence, conservatives have automatically been tied to every fiscal folly on Capitol Hill, fairly or unfairly. Yes, it takes two parties to tango, but Americans have a monetary migraine, and they’re blaming the team in red.

Democrats know it, and they stand to reap the benefits if all goes awry. Right now, Democrats would need a meltdown of epic proportions to gain back the majority in the House, but the ingredients are there, especially on the heels of the latest threat from a faction of Congressional Republicans who say they won’t vote for any budget deal that includes funding for Obamacare.

Senator John Boozman (R) disagrees with that position.

“The President is not going to cave on his signature initiative,” said Boozman, who’s voted against Obamacare multiple times, calling it “terrible policy.”

“The idea of shutting down the government for an extended period of time to stop Obamacare is probably not an effective strategy,” Boozman added.

The first-term senator knows that now isn’t the time for an “all or nothing” approach, and that such a strategy could wind up backfiring on Republicans next year.

“These are very high stakes and this is a strategy that could effectively play right into the President’s hand,” added Boozman.

“A shutdown would be reckless, irresponsible, and would hurt our economy,” said Sen. Pryor, the state’s lone Democrat in the Congressional delegation.  “Congress needs to work together to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

“Talking about shutting down the government engages in a dangerous game of political chicken and is never in the best interest of the American people,” echoed Cong. Steve Womack (R), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Over the next few weeks, Republicans must find the perfect balance. Unrealistic expectations are sure to irritate voters; however, backing down from a fight over spending undercuts the very reason they were sent to Washington in the first place.

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J.R. Davis

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