Faced with a raucous caucus, Boehner fishes for an inducement from Democrats to raise debt limit

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Republicans in the House of Representatives are in disarray over what to do about paying the nation’s bills, with the deadline looming and the party divided on whether to demand concessions from the White House in return for raising the borrowing authority needed to fund the government.

Republicans have little stomach for the fight after the public backlash that followed previous last-minute showdowns over the nation’s finances, including a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government in October.

But there are enough Republicans who want to demand something that House Speaker John Boehner is scrambling to figure out what it should be.

“We’re still looking for the pieces to this puzzle,” Boehner told reporters on Thursday.

The White House and congressional Democrats say they won’t give any concessions to the Republicans for raising the debt limit - no matter what the House demands.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that failing to raise the limit will result in a U.S. debt default that would cause economic turmoil and set back the nation’s recovery. Congressional spending created the debt and now Congress has the responsibility to meet the commitments it made, she said.

“This is not a matter of negotiation. This is the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” she said.

Boehner said he has no desire to bring the nation to the financial cliff, but he is also not prepared to raise the debt limit without getting something in return.

“We do not want to default on our debt, and we’re not going to default on our debt. We’re in discussions with our members about how we can move ahead,” Boehner said.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the nation will run short on money to pay its bills by the end of this month unless Congress agrees to raise the debt ceiling.

“Unlike other recent periods when we have had to use extraordinary measures to continue financing the government, this time these measures will give us only a brief span of time,” Lew said in a Monday speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “It is imperative that Congress move right away to increase our borrowing authority.”

Republicans have considered several ideas of what they might demand in return for raising the debt limit. Among the latest is reversing cuts to military pension benefits, something Democrats also have proposed.

Pelosi said it might be a good idea, but not as part of the debt limit.

“Those are all things that can be discussed in their own place. . . . The only reason that the speaker is adding those things is because his caucus does not want to vote to honor the full faith and credit of America unless they have a cookie in their lunch,” she said.

Republicans also have considered demanding the president approve the Keystone XL pipeline in return for raising the debt limit. But several GOP lawmakers said they think Obama is going to approve the pipeline anyway, and that idea appears to have been discarded as a bargaining chip.

Boehner is struggling to bring his fractured caucus together enough to agree on something that can get the debt limit raised and avoid a default, which would trigger a lowering of the U.S. government’s credit rating and raise the cost of future borrowing.

“Mother Teresa is a saint now. But if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 Republican votes,” he said.

Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton said the House should demand spending cuts in return for raising the borrowing authority. But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there’s no point getting into another showdown where the Democrats won’t budge and the House Republicans surrender on the brink of a crisis.

Labrador said this time the House should just agree to raise the debt limit without demanding anything. The Democrats can take responsibility for the result, he said.

“I don’t want a ruse. I don’t want us to just claim we’re fighting for something and then capitulate in the end,” he said. “I think the American people are tired of the games.”

By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau