Boehner: No promises on debt vote
GREENVILLE, Ohio —Speaker John Boehner won’t guarantee a vote on raising the debt limit, the latest threat in an increasingly high stakes game of chicken with the White House over whether Congress will inch closer to letting the nation default on its credit.
Boehner, in an interview with POLITICO here Monday, also demanded that President Barack Obama give in to Republican demands to slash spending and dramatically change “the way we spend the people’s money.”
“If the president doesn’t get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there’s a chance it [the debt limit vote] could not happen,” Boehner told POLITICO after he toured a manufacturing company in this western Ohio town. “But that’s not my goal.”
The vote to increase the borrowing ceiling beyond the current limit of $14 trillion has become one of the defining issues for a House Republican majority that ran campaigns promising dramatic cuts in government spending. As the deadline draws closer to a debt ceiling vote, Republicans are starting to sound less compromising in their stance, even as Treasury officials warn of market calamity and economic “Armageddon” if Congress refuses a vote.
Boehner laid out several goals for any potential deal on the debt limit: He is calling for controls on discretionary spending and altering the nation’s entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid to be attached to the legislation to hike the debt ceiling.
He was noncommittal about holding a vote on that bill before July 4 — very close to the deadline by which Treasury says the U.S. will have hit its borrowing limit.
Boehner’s comments are his strongest to date in the debate over the debt limit – a stark contrast to his tight-lipped demeanor when he negotiated with Obama earlier this month over the budget deal that kept the government open while cutting $38 billion in spending.
The two-week congressional spring break is proving to be a pivotal time during the first few months of Boehner’s speakership. He’s coming off a largely successful budget negotiation but he is under enormous pressure from the right not to offer any concessions on the debt limit — despite warnings from economists and Treasury experts that failure to raise the limit will shake global markets.
But while Boehner talks tough on the debt limit, some politically vulnerable Republicans are facing serious heat in town halls during the spring recess for their “yes” votes on Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) 2012 budget, which would dramatically overhaul Medicare and Medicaid.
But Boehner is injecting those politically difficult programs back into the debate in advance of the debt limit vote, saying that “I think it’s time to deal with entitlement programs…on the debt ceiling.”
Tax increases, he has said, are a nonstarter.
That message is sure to be met with resistance from Democrats, who are largely opposed to statutory caps on discretionary spending and like even less GOP plans to reform Medicare and Medicaid. Most Democrats and Obama favor raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Boehner called a balanced budget amendment — a favorite of some conservatives — “a good step in the right direction” but brushed it off, saying “I’d rather pass real spending reductions.”
And the speaker also said he “made it clear to” his friend Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) – who is working on the plan of the so-called Senate Gang of Six – that he doesn’t “think that tax increases ought to be part of their plan,” all but rendering the proposal dead on arrival in the lower chamber of Congress.
“They’ve done a lot of really good work,” he said. “I raised my concerns about tax increases, which I don’t think are necessary. They’re continuing to work on their plan – they’re working hard on it. And I give them a lot of credit for the work that they’ve done.”
Boehner’s House Republican Conference, too, has been busy at work. In the past month, the House has voted for a number of government funding measures that cut billions of dollars in federal spending, struck a deal with the White House on a funding plan that would avert a government shutdown until Sept. 30 and overwhelmingly passed a controversial 2012 spending blueprint that drastically alters entitlement spending.
But for all those reasons – which he and his allies see as victories – Boehner and some of his colleagues are feeling pressure.
The speaker has been a target of criticism on the right for the deal he cut with Obama to slash $79 billion from the administration’s 2011 spending request, and $38.5 billion less than Congress spent in 2010.
Boehner laughed off the noise from conservatives who think he caved on the spending cuts, saying that “sticking to your guns pays off.”
“It was 10:30 on Friday night. Alright?” Boehner said, with a look of incredulity on his face, in response to criticism that he caved on the deal he cut with the White House. “We had an hour and a half left. Listen, I did everything I could to deliver as many spending cuts as possible. And when you get 79 percent of what you’re asking for, it’s not a bad deal.”
And he also swatted away the idea that his members were feeling pressure back home over the vote on the Ryan budget.
“If they were getting killed, I’d know about it,” Boehner said. “People are concerned, ‘What’s this all mean.’ And I think it gives members an opportunity to explain what it means and I think having people understand that the greatest danger to our country is doing nothing. Doing nothing is going to be the highway to fiscal ruin. That’s not what the American people want.”
Boehner’s tour of a manufacturing plant on Monday revealed a slightly more relaxed, and certainly more accessible speaker than the one who is typically seen in Washington. Wearing casual gray slacks and a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, the Ohio Republican made his way through the floor of Rebsco, Inc., an agricultural industry manufacturer located across from barren fields northwest of Dayton near the Indiana border. He watched the company’s new machine cut through a slab of metal, toured the factory floor and met with the company’s management in a conference room.
His visit to the plant is part of a two-day swing through his district is largely comprised of events like this: touring factories, slapping backs and shaking hands. On Monday, Boehner approached three factory workers, looked at their blackened hands and said “what the hell,” embracing them in a handshake.
Boehner left the tour in a three-car motorcade and had a meeting planned with a local tea party group. He is slated to address the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning in a ballroom in Moraine, Ohio.
The image of Boehner as the leader of a Republican majority is certainly still developing as his troops wade through legislative battle after legislative battle. After the spending deal was lauded as a victory, Congressional Budget Office numbers showed it was more paltry than previously advertised. Fifty-nine Republicans voted against the plan, illustrating significant dissent within the GOP ranks.
The debt ceiling debate is different for many reasons, but mostly because it has a less firm timeline, but also because the limit needs to be raised to avoid catastrophic consequences in global financial markets. He has called hiking the limit “the responsible thing to do,” despite his dire warnings that it might not happen.
Boehner did not mention Vice President Joe Biden’s deficit panel, on which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sits, as part of the debt limit discussion — perhaps a sign that the group’s work is not seen as being critical to any deals ahead. Signaling that it will be the speaker and Obama will cut the deal, Boehner said “I can get it done next week if the president wants to sit down and get it done.”
The cordial Boehner, who never misses an opportunity to rib a reporter or aide for a tie askew or a haircut gone wrong, is not ready to take as hard of a line with Obama as does his senate counterpart Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
When asked whether he shares McConnell’s goal of making Obama a one-term president, Boehner said “I’m for addressing the big challenges that face our country. The elections will take care of themselves.”