WASHINGTON – With official Washington already partially shut down over an Obamacare funding dispute, House Speaker John Boehner is searching for a way to avoid a looming battle over raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.
Boehner (R-Ohio) is meeting with fellow Republicans in group settings, taking the temperature of members on how best to proceed on the bottled-up spending package, known as the continuing resolution, while also determining what to do about clearing the way so Uncle Sam can borrow the money necessary to pay its bills.
Boehner is telling fellow GOP lawmakers that he will not permit the U.S. to default on its obligations, an anticipated consequence if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by around Oct. 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
How that goal might be achieved remains unclear. Boehner and President Obama have failed to reach accord on a spending plan, with House Republicans to this point insisting that the White House and Senate Democrats agree to either defund or postpone by a year the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law that stands as the most significant achievement of the first five years of Obama’s administration.
The standoff has resulted in the partial government shutdown with no resolution in sight. The debt ceiling debate could complicate matters even further.
Lawmakers who have met with Boehner acknowledge that the Speaker has expressed a willingness to waive the unofficial Hastert rule, named after former House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), who refused any legislation to the House floor for a vote unless it carried the support of a majority of his caucus. If he follows that route Boehner would have to rely on support from opposition Democrats to get the measure through.
But publicly at least the Boehner team is holding the line, insisting that Democrats meet with GOP lawmakers at the bargaining table to hash things out. Thus far Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, have argued that the House and Senate should pass spending legislation and raise the debt ceiling before talks begin anew.
Some members of the Republican caucus say Boehner is considering revisiting what became known in previous negotiations as “The Grand Bargain,” a massive agreement that could contain spending and budget cuts, the debt ceiling and other items on the Republican wish list. That gambit has, however, failed before.
“Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we’re going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
After emerging from a meeting of the House Republican Caucus on Friday, Boehner indicated he is still seeking to gain some leverage in the debt ceiling fight before yielding any ground.
“I don’t think we should default on our debt,” he said. “It’s not good for our country. But after 55 years spending more than what you bring in, something ought to be addressed. I think the American people expect if we’re going to raise the amount of money we can borrow, we ought to do something about our spending problem.”