Debt fight to escalate shutdown showdown; Boehner attaches Obamacare strings

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Legislative activity has slowed to a crawl on Capitol Hill as both sides have become entrenched on the spending bills and now the looming debt fight, with House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, saying Sunday that he will insist on conditions being attached to any bill to raise the federal borrowing limit.

That insistence on conditions — chiefly over a halt to Obamacare — helped land the government in the current shutdown, which is nearly a week old and shows no sign of letting up. Neither side is even acknowledging talking with the other.


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Instead, the House has kept up a frenetic pace, including a Saturday session, voting on bill after bill to reopen parts of the government, including the national parks to the National Institutes of Health.

The Senate, meanwhile, has all but shut down itself. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, hasn’t held a floor vote in nearly a week. The House has voted 26 times since the last Senate vote.

With little sign of a breakthrough, the Obama administration is taking steps to blunt some of the worst effects. The Defense and Homeland Security departments announced over the weekend that they believe the bill Congress passed a week ago to put the military back to work means that many of the 400,000 civilian workers who support the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard can get back to work.

Now, with the Oct. 17 debt limit deadline within sight, Republicans and Democrats appear ready to roll the two fights into one and debate the annual spending bills, which have led to the shutdown, at the same time as the debt limit, where the risk is of a default.

On Sunday, Mr. Boehner told ABC’s “This Week” that he will not allow a debt increase without winning some concessions on lowering spending.

“We are not going down that path. It is time to deal with America’s problems. How can you raise the debt limit and do nothing about the underlying problem?” Mr. Boehner said.


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The federal government has never bumped up against its debt limit, or legal borrowing limit, since it was imposed by Congress in 1917.

Last week, the Treasury Department warned that if the government defaults on the debt, the U.S. economy could face a recession worse than the one the country endured five years ago.

Exactly what would happen is unclear because bumping up against the $16.7 trillion limit is unprecedented.

Unable to borrow, the government could pay out only what money comes in each day, which would signal an instant 20 percent cut in spending. But which programs would be cut is unclear, and the administration has provided little guidance.

House Republicans passed legislation that would have ensured the U.S. didn’t default by insisting that its debt interest payments still be made, but Senate Democrats and President Obama rejected that idea.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the Oct. 17 debt date is firm. The government will have about $30 billion in cash on hand, but that money cannot be guaranteed to cover even a single day’s worth of spending.

The debt limit fight is likely to swallow the spending fight as this week progresses, but for now the spending bills remain the business on the chamber floors.

Democrats challenged Mr. Boehner to call up a “clean” continuing resolution to reopen and fund the government through Nov. 15.

Mr. Boehner, though, said flatly that a “clean” CR wouldn’t pass the House — though he hasn’t put that bill on the floor to prove it.

Democrats have countered that more than 17 House Republicans have said they would vote for a “clean” CR, which means that if all House Democrats also voted for it, there would in fact be a majority.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said if Mr. Boehner is so certain of his math, he should hold a vote and prove it.

“Put it on the floor and let’s see if you’re right,” he said.

Meeting over the weekend, the House passed a bill to guarantee that all federal employees get paid for the shutdown — even those who have been on furlough. But they, like most employees still on the job, will have to wait until funding is returned to collect paychecks.

The bill cleared on a 407-0 vote, showing a striking sense of bipartisanship amid the contentious debate.

Mr. Obama has issued a statement supporting the legislation, though it’s not clear whether Mr. Reid will bring the bill to the Senate floor.

He again said he will not fund the government piece by piece and insisted that House Republicans vote to reopen all of government or else none of it will be reopened.

“A piecemeal approach of funding the government bit by bit is simply not the answer and saying, ‘We are going to pay you when we reopen this place’ — that is not the answer,” he said on the floor of the Senate. “No matter how many bites Republicans take at the apple, there is only one bill that ensures that every federal priority is met — the Senate bill that would fully reopen the federal government.”

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