House Speaker John A. Boehner threw down the gauntlet on Friday, telling President Barack Obama that if he wanted to raise the nation’s debt limit, he had to meet Republicans’ fiscal demands.
Mr. Boehner released a strong statement saying “the president and his party may want a debt limit increase without spending cuts that exceed the amount of the debt limit hike” and “includes tax hikes” and “without budget reforms that will restrict Washington’s ability to spend in the future, but such a proposal cannot pass the House.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner met at the White House on Wednesday evening to discuss the terms of the debt ceiling increase, but clearly the discussion did not get very far.
The speaker emphasized repeatedly in the statement the power of the Republican House to stop any debt limit increase that does not fit into their mandate. “The American people voted for a new majority in the House with clear orders to end the spending binge in Washington,” stated Mr. Boehner. “And since January, I have been clear: the new majority in the House will stand with the people.”
Mr. Boehner’s declaration comes one day after Majority Leader Eric Cantor abruptly and unilaterally decided not to attend any more of the budget negotiations led by Vice President Joseph A. Biden. The Biden group of two congressional Republicans and four Democrats has been meeting since early May and set a July 1 deadline to solidify a package to vote before the August 2 deadline for the debt ceiling.
Mr. Cantor said that the Democrats’ insistence on tax hikes in the package made it impossible for him to continue. The Majority Leader was the sole delegate appointed by the speaker to represent the Republican House in the Biden debt talks. Mr. Cantor’s decision on Thursday led many to believe that he wanted to avoid personal blame for a mediocre deal and to force Mr. Boehner to take over the heat from the conservatives in the party.
The Virginia Republican’s apparent effort to make himself the conservatives’ leader was more clear when he suddenly announced a floor vote for a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA). Mr. Cantor has avoided reporters questions for months about bringing the BBA to the floor. Late Wednesday, a group of the most conservative House members, led by Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, pledged not to vote for a debt limit increase unless the BBA passed both chambers.
Mr. Obama originally asked Congress to increase the $14.3 statutory debt limit in the spring, with a “clean vote”, and no changes to the out-of-control spending in Washington. Republicans pushed back, insisting that the vote would have to include spending cuts, entitlement reform, but no tax increases. As a result, the president was forced to play on the GOP field and set up the Biden group to make a deal on deficit reduction in the near and long-term. The last Biden meeting on Thursday - which was cancelled after Mr. Cantor dropped out - was supposed to deal with spending caps for future spending and trigger mechanisms for enforcement.
Mr. Boehner has said for weeks now that for a deal to be made in the president’s time frame, Mr. Obama would have to get personally engaged in the negotiations. He reiterated the point on Friday, stating that “if the president wants this done, he must lead.”
The debt ceiling is the Republicans best chance this year, and probably through the 2012 election, to use their leverage to force Democrats to make significant changes in the $1.5 trillion annual budget deficit and reform the Medicare program, which is the biggest driver of the debt.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity to do something big for our economy and our country,” Mr. Boehner said. “With presidential leadership, we can seize this moment and deliver something important for the people we serve.”