John Boehner’s offer puts President Obama on the spot

 John Boehner’s offer puts President Obama on the spotBy: Carrie Budoff Brown and Jonathan Allen
October 10, 2013 03:34 PM EDT
John Boehner and Barack Obama are pictured. | AP Photos
President Barack Obama may get the clean debt limit extension he’s been demanding, but it wouldn’t be a clean victory.By adopting the House GOP plan to raise the debt ceiling, Obama would avoid a potentially crippling blow to the economy and, in the White House’s view, finally break Republicans of their habit of seeking concessions each time the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

But the downsides are significant. The federal government might not immediately reopen, there’s no guarantee Republicans would stop using the debt limit as leverage in the future and Obama could find himself in the same position once the temporary extension expires.

(PHOTOS: 25 great shutdown quotes)

And yet, Obama may have little choice but to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s offer because it delivers what the president wanted: a debt limit hike with no ideological strings attached.

“If a clean debt limit bill is passed, he would likely sign it,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “The key is they don’t get anything in exchange.”

The big question for the White House and Republicans in Congress is the definition of the word “clean.” It may be that the White House has to look at yesterday’s shirt — presentable, if not just-starched — as clean enough.

(PHOTOS: Shutdown’s little-known side effects)

The White House is holding out hope that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be able to push a longer debt limit extension through his chamber with some Republican support, putting pressure on the House. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also gauging support for a variety of possible add-ons to debt limit legislation, one of which — giving the administration more flexibility to determine where sequester cuts are made — might be seen as a win for the White House.

Several Senate Republicans have already expressed skepticism over the Boehner plan. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Congress needed to address both the government shutdown and the debt limit.

The emerging House GOP plan would come with some conditions, although not the kind of sweeping demands to defund or repeal Obamacare. Republicans would vote to lift the debt ceiling until Nov. 22 — just before Thanksgiving — while prohibiting the Treasury Department from using extraordinary measures to lift the borrowing limit.

(PHOTOS: 18 times the government has shut down)

Boehner said Republicans would also demand a formal House-Senate conference on larger budget issues, a process Senate Republicans have been blocking since their Democratic counterparts approved a budget resolution earlier this year.

“What we want to do is to offer the president today the ability to move a temporary increase in the debt ceiling, an agreement to go to conference on the budget, for his willingness to sit down and discuss with us a way forward to re-open the government, and to start to deal with America’s pressing problems,” Boehner said.

“It’s time for leadership,” he continued. “I would hope that the president would look at this as an opportunity and a good-faith effort on our part to move halfway — halfway to what he’s demanded in order to have these conversations begin.”

(PHOTOS: D.C. closes up shop)

Carney declined to take a position on the plan, noting that the White House hadn’t yet seen the specifics. But he also did not rule it out immediately.

“We haven’t seen a bill yet,” he said of Boehner’s as-yet-unwritten proposal. “We don’t know what he can pass.”

The major upside to Thursday’s developments is that Obama would dodge economic catastrophe — for a few weeks, at least. The government shutdown is bad, but a default on U.S. debt would be so much worse.

That’s why Obama would have a hard time justifying a veto of a relatively clean debt limit increase, even if it were only for the short term, White House officials said.

But the White House would declare progress — if not an outright victory — on Obama’s broader campaign to break the GOP of its debt-limit habit.

Obama has refused to negotiate around the debt limit since he agreed to do so in 2011, when his attempt to strike a grand bargain with Boehner fell short.

House Republicans backed away from a fight in January when they agreed to raise the debt limit without demanding an equal amount of spending cuts, as they had done for years. Instead, they required that lawmakers in both chambers approve a budget resolution.

“They did it without negotiation in January, they will have done it without negotiation now,” said Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. “That will have set a new paradigm.”

Just as Boehner’s plan was coming together on Capitol Hill, Furman was at a breakfast hosted by the Center for American Progress, questioning why Republicans would push ahead with a plan to raise the debt limit but not end the government shutdown.

“There is just no reason to do that,” Furman said. “Every day the shutdown goes on, the effects get worse. I don’t know why you’d want to deal with one of them and not deal with the other.”

Indeed, Reid and other Senate Democrats — who met with the president prior to Obama’s session with House Republicans — want the White House not to accept the GOP proposal unless they first agree to reopen the government, Democratic sources said.

Reid and Obama are also unsure whether Boehner can actually push his proposal through the House in the first place. They aren’t convinced hard-line conservatives and tea party aligned House Republicans won’t balk.

Carney said the decision of GOP leaders to bring just 18 House Republicans to a meeting at the White House Thursday would deprive the president of the opportunity to speak directly with the “subset of House Republicans” he portrayed as driving Boehner’s decision making.

“It might have been useful for him to hear from some of those other members, and for them to hear from him,” Carney said.

But if the House and Senate pass a brief debt-limit extension, it would be difficult for the president to veto legislation averting what he has said would be a catastrophic event for the American economy. Carney said Obama wants a longer extension and for House Republicans to re-open the government now.

In a Wednesday night meeting with the president, House Democrats shared stories with the president of the hardships their constituents face, and they made clear afterward that they are not willing to give up the fight for a higher spending level. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats would agree only to a short-term re-opening of the government, so that they could push for more money for government agencies.

The bottom line, Carney said, is that Republicans have adopted an “unsustainably bad proposition” in moving toward a debt-limit increase while keeping the government closed.

“What would the Republican rationale for that be?” he asked.

Burgess Everett, Seung Min Kim and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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