- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2013

Despite the recent bipartisan breakthrough on the budget, the White House insisted Monday it will not negotiate with congressional Republicans on the next debt ceiling increase and will demand an unconditional increase before the government hits its borrowing limit early next year.

The Obama administration’s line in the sand sets up yet another high-stakes political chess match with the House GOP — one that could soon overshadow the budget deal achieved last week.

“The president’s position is what it is and it won’t change,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters after being pressed on whether the administration would be willing to put further spending cuts, entitlement reform or other Republican wish-list items on the table in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase.

That stance stands in stark contrast to the one laid out over the weekend by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Republican architect of the two-year budget deal struck with Democratic leaders in the Senate last week. That agreement, hailed by the White House, failed to address the debt ceiling, with both sides agreeing to leave that fight for another day.

When that day comes, Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Sunday that his party won’t settle for “nothing.” House Speaker John A. Boehner’s office said Monday the issue will be discussed when GOP members meet for their annual retreat next month.

After Republicans hash out their strategy, they’ll have no more than about two months to find common ground with Democrats.

The October deal to end the government shutdown also suspended the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, and analysts say the U.S. could hit its borrowing limit just a few weeks after that, likely sometime in March.

The White House is betting Republicans will be unwilling to risk letting the nation default on its debt, and will concede just as they did in October, when Democrats refused to budge on GOP demands to delay the implementation of Obamacare and on other issues.

But political analysts say Mr. Boehner, Mr. Ryan and other Republican leaders are keenly aware that the debt-limit debate offers a key window of opportunity. With the budget fight now behind them, the debt ceiling offers the only real bargaining chip to achieve major changes to the tax code, entitlement reform or other long-term goals, said Lara Brown, director of the political management program at George Washington University.

“The reason Republicans are even throwing out there the idea of leveraging the debt ceiling is that there’s no reason anyone is coming to the table anytime soon to talk about the big things,” she said. “But the only problem is the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling are so much more severe” than October’s 16-day government shutdown.

She added, “The fact of the matter is, [Republicans] have no other way to bring people to table. There’s no incentive to negotiate” for President Obama or congressional Democrats.

Republicans used the debt-ceiling leverage in the 2011 fiscal showdown that ultimately resulted in nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts, along with the automatic, across-the-board reductions known as sequestration. The ordeal also was, to at least some degree, a political victory for Republicans, one Mr. Obama vowed never to let happen again.

The two most recent debt limit increases, including the October agreement that also ended the government shutdown, didn’t include the kind of real budget cuts that many conservatives desperately wanted to see.

The current impasse, according to Ms. Brown, reflects inter-Republican party politics.

Some conservative organizations and tea party members in the House slammed last week’s budget compromise, charging that it didn’t go far enough on spending or long-term problems such as entitlement reform.

To placate those members, Mr. Boehner, Mr. Ryan and others must be seen as putting up a fight on the debt limit, Ms. Brown said.

“If the conservative outcry hadn’t been so large last week, I’m not so sure that the Republicans would have fought on the debt ceiling. Coming out of that, they really needed to suggest they haven’t just rolled completely,” she said.