GOP SENATE HOPEFUL: GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN ‘MAY BE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY’…. About a week ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appeared on Fox News and was asked about threats from his party about shutting down the government next year. Steele replied, “I have not heard any candidates say that.”

Similarly, last month, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said talk of a possible shutdown is “absurd,” and the very idea is little more than “the left” and “the media” attempting to “create an issue that doesn’t exist.”

These guys really aren’t paying close enough attention. At this point, all kinds of Republican candidates have been talking up the shutdown idea. The latest is Senate hopeful Mike Lee (R), the overwhelming favorite to win in Utah on Tuesday, who intends to force a confrontation on the federal debt limit.

“Our current debt is a little shy of $14 trillion. And I don’t want it to increase 1 cent above the current debt limit and I will vote against that,” he says.

Even if it leads to government default and shutdown?

“It’s an inconvenience, it would be frustrating to many, many people and it’s not a great thing, and yet at the same time, it’s not something that we can rule out,” he says. “It may be absolutely necessary.”

The likelihood of the GOP using the debt limit to force a shutdown is already pretty high, and the fight could come early next year.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a government shutdown isn’t just “an inconvenience.” As Alex Seitz-Wald noted this morning, “Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s government shutdown in 1995 was disastrous; it ended up costing taxpayers over $800 million in losses for salaries paid to furloughed employees, delayed access to Medicare and Social Security, and caused a ‘[m]ajor curtailment in services,’ including health services, to veterans.”

A few weeks ago, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was asked if we’re likely to see a replay of the showdown that led Gingrich to shut down the government. Cantor replied, “No. I don’t think the country needs or wants a shutdown.” He added that when it comes to pursuing their agenda, Republicans “have to be careful” or they’ll be “seen as a bunch of yahoos.”

The number of Republicans who disagree with Cantor appears to be growing.

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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.