THE LIKELIHOOD OF A SHUTDOWN…. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appeared on Fox News this morning, and was asked, “What about this idea of shutting down the government? … Have you heard any candidates out there saying that that’s what they want to do? That that’s what they’re going to do once they get to Washington?”

Steele replied, “I have not heard any candidates say that.”

Maybe he’s not listening, because all kinds of Republican candidates have been saying exactly that. Some have been demanding a shutdown, and when CNN pressed House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the issue of a shutdown, he refused to answer either way.

The question to me isn’t whether House Republicans would push the government towards a shutdown; the question to me is which issue they’ll use to make it happen.

The most common assumption is that the GOP will pick a fight over health care, vowing to shut down the government unless Democrats agree to destroy the Affordable Care Act. Just last month, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) even demanded this his party’s leadership sign a “blood oath” that they will gut America’s health care system, even if the effort leads to a government shutdown.

But it could happen even sooner, on an issue that has nothing to do with health care.

The campaign rhetoric of tea-party-inspired Republicans is on a collision course with the federal debt limit, which could make the threat of a government shutdown an early order of business in a new Republican majority.

Republican candidates across the country are attacking Democrats for growth in government spending — specifically, their votes earlier this year to raise the debt limit to $14.3 trillion.

But with the deficit running over $100 billion a month and the national debt already above $13.6 trillion, Treasury Department officials predicted earlier this month that they would need Congress to raise the debt limit again in the first or second quarter of 2011. A failure to raise the debt limit could result in a government shutdown, because the government could not borrow more money to operate.

It’s worth emphasizing that the National Republican Congressional Committee is running several attack ads on debt-limit votes, and several House GOP candidates have already vowed to reject any additional increases. Republican lawmakers, if they’re in the majority, may very well see this as an opportunity to exploit.

Of course, these are the same Republican lawmakers who insist on adding trillions of dollars to the debt in the form of tax cuts for millionaires, so their consistency on fiscal responsibility leaves much to be desired.

Regardless, if there’s a GOP majority in at least one chamber, as appears likely, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Republicans shut down the government fairly early on next year.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.