WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, meet Congressman Michael Burgess.
The president said he absolutely will not let Republicans threaten a national debt ceiling crisis as a way to extract deeper federal spending cuts.
“It’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard,” the Texas Republican said. “He’s going to have to negotiate.”
Both sides may be bluffing, of course. They may reach an agreement before the debt-limit matter becomes a crisis in March, or possibly late February.
But the tough talk suggests this year’s political fight could be even nastier and more nerve-grating than the recent “fiscal cliff” showdown, or the July 2011 brinkmanship that triggered the first-ever ratings downgrade of the nation’s credit-worthiness.
Asked about the White House’s apparent assumption that Republicans will back down, Burgess said: “I’m not going to foreclose on anything, but that’s just not going to happen.”
He is hardly alone.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., repeatedly declined to say he would rule out a government shutdown, prompted by a debt-ceiling impasse, in the effort to force Obama to swallow large spending cuts. “It’s a shame that we have to use whatever leverage we have in Congress” to force the White House to negotiate, he said.
Congressional Republicans of all stripes said Obama has no choice but to accept spending cuts they want in exchange for a hike in the debt ceiling, which will reach its limit in about two months. Said McConnell: “We simply cannot increase the nation’s borrowing limit without committing to long-overdue reforms to spending programs that are the very cause of our debt.”
Obama said he’s willing to discuss spending cuts in some programs. But that discussion, he said, must not be tied to GOP threats to keep the government from borrowing the money it needs to keep paying its bills, including interest on foreign-held debt.
“I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they have already racked up through the laws that they passed,” the president said last week. “If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic.”
It once was fairly routine for Congress to raise the government’s borrowing limit every year or two, to keep paying bills in times of deficit spending. But the exercise became fiercely partisan in 2011.
Republicans threatened to block a debt ceiling hike unless Obama and congressional Democrats agreed to large but mostly unspecified spending cuts. Obama negotiated furiously. In hopes of a far-reaching “grand bargain,” he offered to raise premiums, co-payments and the eligibility age for Medicare, and to slow the cost-of-living increases for Social Security benefits.
House Republicans demanded more. Foreshadowing the recent “fiscal cliff” quarrels, they embarrassed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, by forcing him to rewrite debt-limit legislation to include a hopeless bid to amend the Constitution to require balanced budgets.
In the end, Republicans settled for about $1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. The government barely avoided having to stop paying some bills. Financial markets were rattled, however, and Standard & Poor’s lowered the nation’s credit-worthiness rating.
Obama said he will take a dramatically different approach this time. He will discuss possible spending cuts as part of a broad deficit-reduction package. But he will end the conversation, he said, if Republicans threaten to withhold cooperation on the debt limit unless he meets their cost-cutting demands.
Republican lawmakers spoke dismissively of Obama’s challenge in interviews last week. Several laughed out loud at the president’s remarks.
“He’s out of his mind,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. If Obama thinks Republicans will back off their demands, Franks said, he is “operating in his usual cloud of delusion.”
“It’s a major mistake for the president to be intractable,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. To think Republicans are bluffing, she said, “is a mighty mistake on his part.”
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