- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2012

House Speaker John A. Boehner on Tuesday set the stage for an end-of-year debt showdown, saying he will once again insist any increase in the federal borrowing limit be matched dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts elsewhere.

The last time he made that vow — ahead of last August’s debt deadline — the government teetered on the brink of a partial shutdown before he and President Obama agreed to a deal that matched an immediate debt boost to possible future spending cuts.

Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he considers that deal a precedent, and from now on every request for more debt will have to be accompanied by an equal cut in spending.

“It is a line in the sand,” he said. “As long as I’m around here, I believe that line in the sand will be here.”

The Obama administration pushed back, saying it was irresponsible to put conditions on the government’s borrowing.

“We hope they do it this time without the drama and the pain and the damage they caused the country last July,” Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said.

Days after that last battle, one of the top ratings agencies downgraded U.S. debt from its AAA rating to AA+ — a move each party blamed on the other.

The debt limit stands at $16.394 trillion, which was the top level set in August’s deal. As of Monday, the government’s tab was $15.632 trillion, leaving it still more than $700 billion shy.

Mr. Geithner said that while the government will close that gap at the end of this year, he has tools available to delay breaching the limit until sometime next year, which could push the debt fight out of a lame-duck session of Congress already expected to be crowded with fights over expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and the automatic spending cuts left in place by the last debt deal.

Even if Mr. Geithner can delay, debt is bound to be part of the presidential campaign.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, speaking in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, said “a prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation.”

The White House fired back that Mr. Romney’s own tax-cut plans would leave the nation deeper in debt, too. Mr. Obama has called for tax increases to reduce the deficit.

Running out of time

With a new debt battle added to an already crowded legislative calendar, some Democrats said they’re skeptical about Congress getting much done the rest of the year.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Republicans haven’t scheduled enough work days for the chamber.

“I frankly don’t have a lot of hope about getting something done prior to the election, because of the politics of whatever positions everybody has, because they don’t want to move off those positions for political reasons,” Mr. Hoyer said.

The House only has nine full legislative days scheduled between now and its Fourth of July vacation, and has only completed one of its dozen annual spending bills — and that process took three days.

Mr. Hoyer said if House GOP leaders continue to bring up legislation under open rules of debate — a process that permits amendments from the floor and typically takes longer than a “closed rule” process, then the House must be in session more days.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid has yet to bring a budget to the floor, though the GOP will force votes on several different alternatives, including Mr. Obama’s own budget, this week.

But Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the GOP is refusing to compromise, which makes it difficult to legislate on big issues such as tax cuts and debt.

“Instead of meeting us in the middle on the enormous challenges we face as a country, Republicans are already digging these trenches they’re already in, and they say they’re not going to move,” he said.

Big decisions

With little time left before the election, Congress has left itself a lengthy to-do list in November and December: prevent a large cut in payments to doctors who take Medicare patients; address the expiring 2001, 2003 and payroll-tax cuts; prevent the alternative minimum tax from biting deeper into the middle class; and rewrite the looming defense cuts.

Mr. Boehner called that an “end-of-year pileup,” and said he wants to start negotiating now — particularly on taxes and the debt.

He said the GOP-led House will vote to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts, but said the real negotiations should happen next year on a broad reform package that lowers corporate and personal income-tax rates while eliminating loopholes. He said that will mean some people pay more taxes, while others will pay less.

In particularly harsh language, Mr. Boehner said he doubts Mr. Obama has the backbone to negotiate real spending cuts.

“The difference between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right is courage, and the president, I’m sorry to say, lost his,” Mr. Boehner said in a broad speech laying out a vision for tackling the deficit. “He was willing to talk about the tough choices needed to preserve and strengthen our entitlement programs, but he wasn’t ready to take action.”

Skeptical tea party

Mr. Boehner’s “line in the sand” didn’t sit well with some in the tea party who said he tried the same tough talk last year, only to accept a massive debt increase in exchange for tentative future cuts.

“It is time for the Republicans of 2012 to lead a coup against John Boehner. Boehner has proven repeatedly he is not a leader. He will not fight against the Democrats,” said Judson Phillips, writing at the forum of Tea Party Nation, which he founded. “He gives lip service to reducing the national debt, but will not fight for it.”

August’s debt deal gave Mr. Obama the authority to increase the debt ceiling enough to last nearly to the end of this year, but coupled that power with limits to future discretionary spending and automatic across-the-board cuts looming as soon as the end of this year.

If the debt limit is reached, it means the government cannot borrow any more money. Currently, it is borrowing about 40 cents for every dollar it spends.