Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, joined by other Democrats, on Thursday watched a countdown toward a shutdown.

J. Scott Applewhite • Associated Press,

GOP shifts battle from spending to debt limit

  • New York Times
  • September 26, 2013 - 9:28 PM


– With no serious negotiations in sight, a disorderly and divided Congress slipped closer to a double-barreled fiscal crisis Thursday as House Republican leaders tried to shift the budget dispute to a fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit.

Trying to round up votes from a reluctant rank-and-file, House Republicans said they would agree to increase the debt limit to avert a mid-October default only if Democrats accepted a list of Republican priorities, including a one-year delay of the health care law, a tax overhaul and a broad rollback of environmental regulations.

At the same time, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio signaled he was not ready to abandon a spending fight that could shut down the federal government as soon as Tuesday. Asked whether he would put a stopgap spending bill to a vote free of Republican policy prescriptions, he answered, “I do not see that happening.”

President Obama, who has faced three years of down-to-the-wire standoffs that have nearly ended in default or shutdowns a half-dozen times, fired back with a broadside of his own.

“No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget,” Obama said before a friendly audience in suburban Washington.

The bitter back-and-forth in the absence of any high-level discussions between Republicans and Democrats was seen as increasing the possibility of a shutdown or default. It was a marked contrast from past showdowns when talks were taking place behind the scenes even as the parties traded public shots.

The Senate faces a critical vote Friday to cut off debate on legislation to keep the government open. If Democrats muster 60 votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will move to strip out House language that guts the health care law and pass a stopgap bill that funds the government through Nov. 15, without GOP policy prescriptions.

No one is sure how the House would react. “There is no secret room where everyone is sitting down and hashing this out,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia encouraged Democrats to come to the table. “We call on the president to sit down with us, Harry Reid to sit down with us, and let’s resolve this problem,” he said.

But in their efforts to unify restive Republicans, House leaders were only widening the partisan divisions. Behind closed doors Thursday, they laid out their demands for a debt-ceiling increase that include the health law delay, fast-track authority to overhaul the tax code, construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, offshore oil and gas production and more permitting of energy exploration on federal lands.

The legislation would also roll back regulations on coal ash, block new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas production, eliminate a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, eliminate mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare, among other provisions.

Even with that legislative Christmas tree, many Republican backbenchers balked.

Economists of all political persuasions have warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by the Treasury’s deadline of Oct. 17 could be catastrophic. The world economy’s faith in the safety of Treasury debt would be shaken for years, they believe. Interest rates could shoot up, and stock prices worldwide would most likely plummet.

“Defaulting on any obligation of the U.S. government would be a dangerous gamble,” Doug Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told the House Budget Committee on.

But many House Republicans put little stock in such pronouncements. “Economists, what have they been doing? They make all sorts of predictions,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “Many times they’re wrong, so I don’t think we should run government based on economists’ predictions.”

Those who do believe in the dangers said that they provide the leverage they need to win passage of their priorities. “People have to recognize there’s never any compromise until the stakes are high,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. “In our society, that’s the nature of democratic government.”

With the twin clocks ticking, Democratic leaders seem paralyzed by rage, claiming Republicans are relying on Democrats to be “the responsible adult in the room” and cave to their hostage-taking. “They have a responsibility to the country. They have a responsibility to their constituents and their children,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House’s No. 2 Democrat. “They are damaging the country, and the public ought to make them pay a price.”

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