House Republican leaders said Thursday they will offer a temporary increase in the federal debt ceiling in exchange for negotiations with President Obama on longer-term “pressing problems,” but they stopped short of agreeing to end a government shutdown now in its 10th day.
In a news briefing following a closed-door meeting of House Republicans to present a plan to raise the debt limit for six weeks, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “What we want to do is offer the president today the ability to move a temporary increase in the debt ceiling.” He described the offer, to be presented to Obama in a White House meeting with House Republicans on Thursday afternoon, as a “good-faith effort on our part to move halfway to what he’s demanded in order to have these conversations begin.”
Obama is encouraged by the Republicans’ implicit recognition that a federal debt default is not an option but would prefer a longer extension of the debt limit, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Boehner did not immediately provide specifics of the plan. But the speaker made clear that House Republicans are not agreeing to Obama’s demand that they pass legislation to fund the government with no partisan strings attached, thereby ending the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Asked about the shutdown, Boehner said, “That’s a conversation we’re going to have with the president today.”
The GOP plan would suspend the debt limit until Nov. 22, the Friday before Thanksgiving, while also forbidding Treasury Secretary Jack Lew from using “extraordinary measures” that his department has used in recent years to extend his borrowing authority for weeks after the ceiling is reached, according to a senior GOP aide who was in the room. This creates a hard “X date,” as financial analysts call the issue, leaving no wiggle room beyond that day.
The House Republicans essentially are offering a “clean” debt-limit increase in exchange for negotiations over reopening the government, aides said. The government shutdown would not end until Obama agreed to “structural reforms” to the tax code and federal health programs.
The House GOP leadership would like to hold a vote Thursday night on the plan, provided that Obama accepts it in the meeting scheduled for 4:30 p.m. But such a vote is more likely Friday, aides said.
The Senate is currently on track to vote Saturday on a Democratic proposal for a clean debt-limit hike, but that might be moved up to Friday.
The Republican plan for a six-week increase in the debt limit, without conservative strings attached, was aimed chiefly at calming jittery financial markets, according to senior GOP advisers.
The plan was presented to the House GOP caucus Thursday morning after Lew warned lawmakers that he would be unable to guarantee payments to any group — whether Social Security recipients or U.S. bondholders — unless Congress raises the federal debt ceiling.
If the GOP plan goes over well with rank-and-file Republicans, Boehner could put the legislation on the floor for a vote late Thursday, aides said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) described the plan at the news briefing as “a temporary extension of the debt ceiling in exchange for a real commitment by the president and the Senate majority leader to sit down and talk about the pressing problems” facing the country. Rep. Kevin McCarty (R-Calif.), the House majority whip, characterized these problems as “drivers” of increasing federal debt.
Obama has indicated he could support a short-term debt-limit hike, but he has also demanded that Republicans allow the government to reopen before he would negotiate with the GOP.
If the Republicans want to negotiate, they should “reopen the government, extend the debt ceiling,” Obama said last week. “If they can’t do it for a long time, do it for the period of time in which these negotiations are taking place.”
Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters Thursday afternoon: “The president is happy that cooler heads at least seem to be prevailing in the House, that there at least seems to be a recognition that default is not an option.” However, Obama “believes it would be far better . . . to raise the debt ceiling for an extended period of time,” as Senate Democrats are proposing.
“It would be far better for the economy if we stopped this episodic brinksmanship and . . . mothballed the nuclear weapon here, which is the threat of default, for a longer duration,” Carney said. “But it is certainly at least an encouraging sign that . . . they are not listening to the debt-limit and default deniers.” If Republicans now recognize that default cannot be permitted, he added, “why keep the nuclear weapon in your back pocket?”
The first reactions from Republican House members appeared generally positive. But several insisted they would back the measure only with a commitment from the president to open negotiations over the next debt-ceiling hike.
“All we’re doing is saying, if the president hasn’t come towards us, we’ll just move the deadline out and offer it again,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “We haven’t changed our position. We’ve just changed the timeline.”
Fleming rejected the idea that the proposal represents a concession from Republicans. “Not really, if we get a concession from the president, to sit down and negotiate. If he doesn’t agree to that, I won’t agree to the debt ceiling.”