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Default on federal debt worries Boehner

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By The Washington Post
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 8:45 p.m.

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner, apparently sharing Obama administration alarm about a possible debt default, has told colleagues that he will act to raise the federal debt limit, even if he has to rely on the votes of House Democrats, GOP aides said on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear, however, whether Boehner, R-Ohio, would stand by such a position publicly or whether it would prove to be a trial balloon allowing him to gauge the reactions of the GOP's Tea Party wing.

President Obama warned that the looming debt-ceiling crisis could be even more damaging than the government shutdown, which he said could end immediately if House Republicans would hold a vote on a short-term spending bill without partisan attachments. In a speech in suburban Maryland, he urged Republicans to “take a vote, stop this farce, and end this shutdown right now.”

With concern shifting to a deadline in two weeks to raise the debt limit, Boehner has told colleagues that he will do whatever is necessary to avoid defaulting on the federal debt, including relying on House Democrats to help pass a debt ceiling increase, according to GOP aides familiar with the conversations.

Asked about this development, White House spokesman Jay Carney responded skeptically. He told reporters that Republican leaders have long said they would not allow a default but that they “flirted with default” in 2011, hurting the economy by triggering a downgrade of the credit rating. Carney also noted that a Boehner spokesman reiterated “the same list of demands” that the GOP has been making all along.

In a series of small-group meetings in his office suite, Boehner has told fellow Republicans that he will not permit a vote on a “clean” short-term spending bill that does not end or delay parts of the new federal health care law. But the aides indicated that Boehner is willing to risk infuriating some of the most conservative House GOP lawmakers by relying on a majority of Democratic votes — and less than a majority of Republicans — to pass a debt ceiling increase.

Doing so would reprise a strategy that ensured passage earlier this year of measures to avert another fiscal impasse, to renew the Violence Against Women Act and to provide federal relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Such a maneuver in effect would suspend the so-called Hastert Rule, an unwritten governing principle of Republican House speakers since the 1990s when the chamber has been under GOP control. Under the rule, the speaker will not allow a floor vote on a bill that is not supported by a majority of Republicans.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel would not confirm the details of the speaker's conversations with members in recent days, but he said Boehner has always believed that defaulting on the federal debt must be avoided.

“Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we're going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits,” Steel said. “That's why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again.”

In an appearance on Thursday at a construction company in Rockville, Md., Obama strongly denounced the “reckless Republican shutdown” that he said was actually welcomed by some Tea Party members of the GOP. But he reserved his toughest warnings for the debt limit issue, charging that Republicans are holding a gun to the heads of the American people by threatening to default on U.S. obligations unless a host of partisan demands are met.

“As reckless as a government shutdown is . . . an economic shutdown that results from default would be dramatically worse,” Obama said.

His remarks reflected a shift in the fight over the government shutdown toward a bigger showdown over the debt ceiling, after the first talks to solve the fiscal standoff failed to make any progress toward a deal.

On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans have begun to suggest that a broad agreement to overhaul entitlements and the tax code could be used to resolve both the shutdown and the debt limit clash.

Democrats view that approach as hostage-taking. They say Congress must reopen the government and authorize additional borrowing before serious negotiations can occur.

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