Election 2012

Democrats Return Fire After John Boehner's Opening Debt-Ceiling Salvo

David Grant

Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday vowed that the House will not wait until after November elections to find a way to avoid a year-end "fiscal cliff" – and that House Republicans will, again, refuse to raise the national debt limit, unless Congress offsets the hike with spending cuts.

U.S. Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner
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"Previous Congresses have encountered lesser precipices with lower stakes and made a beeline for the closest lame-duck escape hatch," Mr. Boehner said, at a speech at a fiscal summit sponsored by the Peterson Foundation in Washington.  "Let me put your mind at ease. This Congress will not follow that path, not if I have anything to do with it."

But Democrats bristled at the way Boehner would keep the United States from financial Armageddon – an approach that the House Budget Committee's ranking Democrat likened to "playing chicken with our economy."

With Congress putting off an 18-wheeler's worth of challenges until the lame-duck session between the November elections and the new year, it could be said that all of Capitol Hill is staring down a massive financial collision. Whether to extend the Bush tax cuts and the budget-slashing "sequester," raise the debt ceiling, extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax holiday, and fix payments to physicians from Medicare may all have to be resolved in only six short weeks.

By contrast, Boehner aims to get to work before November elections, offering by far the most concrete plans to get to work ahead of the lame-duck session of any congressional leader. The House will hold votes on the expiring Bush tax cuts before the elections, he said. It will also put together a process for an "expedited" path to tax reform in the new year.

"If we do this right, we will never again have to deal with the uncertainty of expiring tax rates," Boehner said.

It is on the question of the debt ceiling, however, that Boehner drew the most Democratic ire for his insistence on what might be called the "Boehner principle," that is: Every dollar of additional debt increase for the federal government must be matched by an equal or greater reduction in government spending.

"This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance," he said.

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But Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, the leading Democrat on the House Budget Committee, pointed out that the House's own Republican budget would violate Boehner's principle, as it requires $5.2 trillion in additional deficit spending. "This isn't just hypocritical," Mr. Van Hollen said in a statement, "it's dangerous."

"The GOP’s refusal to consider both spending and revenues – despite the recommendation of every bipartisan group that has looked at this issue – does nothing to bring us any closer to getting our fiscal house in order," he added.

Boehner's stance – the same one that eventual won Republicans a hard-fought deal with President Obama to raise the debt limit last summer – conjures a time when Republican demands on the debt ceiling sent Congress's approval rating plummeting into the single digits, crushed consumer economic confidence, and helped spur an unprecedented downgrade in America's credit rating.

In the speaker's mind, however, setting conditions to increase the debt limit forces a lethargic Congress to make tough choices.

"We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction," he said.

Speaking at the same event, however, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took issue with viewing the debt ceiling as a vehicle for anything other than upholding America's financial obligations.

"This commitment to meet the obligations of the nation, this  commitment to protect the creditworthiness of the country is a fundamental commitment you can never call into question or violate because it's the foundation for any market economy, the foundation of  our financing," Mr. Geithner said. "This allows us to govern, to fight wars, to deal with crises, recessions, to adjust to a changing world. You can't put that into question; you can't put it into doubt."

Boehner's Senate bête noire, majority leader Harry Reid, said the Speaker's plans showed that he is moving at the behest of his caucus's most conservative members.

"American people have had enough of this brinkmanship," Mr. Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "It's pretty clear to me that the tea party direction to the Republican Party is driving them over the cliff."

No matter who is driving, though, Boehner is done with waiting.

"[W]e’ve talked this problem to death," he said. "It’s about time we roll up our sleeves and get to work."