WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders will move forward this week on a measure to raise the government’s legal borrowing limit without any policy strings attached, answering House Republicans’ taunts that Democrats would not force their politically vulnerable senators to cast that difficult vote.
The first vote on raising the debt ceiling, by an amount large enough to get the government through the 2014 elections, could come as early as Friday. The deadline is Oct. 17, but the partial shutdown of the federal government ended its first week Monday without any bipartisan meetings, or any planned.
Not only was Washington apparently no closer to resolving the dual crises, but the tensions between the parties and between President Obama and the Republican-controlled House seemed to worsen, with differences becoming personal and public.
Obama made an unscheduled visit to the understaffed Federal Emergency Management Agency on a rainy Monday in his latest effort to draw attention to the effects of the shutdown and to publicly challenge the claim that House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, made the day before on national television that the votes did not exist to fully finance the government without policy concessions.
Boehner told the ABC News program “This Week” that the House could not pass federal financing for the fiscal year that began last Tuesday without measures limiting Obama’s health insurance law, the Affordable Care Act. House Democrats and some moderate Republicans say that a bipartisan majority does exist but that Boehner refuses to defy tea party conservatives and hold a vote on the Senate-passed measure.
At FEMA, Obama seemed intent to call Boehner’s bluff. “The House should hold that vote today,” he said. “If Republicans and Speaker Boehner are saying there are not enough votes, then they should prove it.”
Then, turning up the pressure, Obama added, “The reason that Speaker Boehner hasn’t called a vote on it is because he doesn’t apparently want to see the government shutdown end at the moment unless he’s able to extract concessions that don’t have anything to do with the budget.”
Separately, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., all but called the speaker a liar for claiming a lack of House votes.
“Speaker Boehner has a credibility problem,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman. “There is now a consistent pattern of Speaker Boehner saying things that fly in the face of the facts or stand at odds with his past actions.”
Boehner criticized the president for refusing to negotiate further concessions to House Republicans, either to finance and reopen the government or to increase the nation’s debt limit so that it does not default on its debts for the first time. “Really, Mr. President, it’s time to have that conversation before our economy is put further at risk,” he said.
Obama and congressional Democrats have dug in, telling Republicans to capitulate because it is a basic responsibility of Congress to keep the government solvent and open for business. To give in, the Democrats argue, would only encourage Republicans to demand concessions every time the government needs financing, which happens annually, or an increase in the debt limit, which has occurred more than 40 times since Ronald Reagan became president.
At FEMA, Obama countered Republicans’ contentions that he was refusing to negotiate.
“There is not a subject that I am not willing to engage in, work on, negotiate and come up with common-sense compromises on,” Obama said. “What I’ve said is that I cannot do that under the threat that if Republicans don’t get 100 percent of their way, they’re going to either shut down the government, or they are going to default on America’s debt so that America, for the first time in history, does not pay its bills.”
Republicans acknowledge that their decision to link the reopening of the government to the health care law is unpopular. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that disapproval of congressional Republicans had jumped to 70 percent, from 63 percent late last month.
But David Winston, a Republican pollster close to Boehner, said Obama’s stance was likely to prove unpopular. as well. “Anyone who says he knows how this is going to turn out doesn’t know,” Winston said. “We are in a very unsettled time.”
By moving forward with a debt-ceiling increase, with the Obama administration’s support, Senate Democrats sought to prove that they were willing to do what they were demanding of the speaker. An increase in the borrowing limit does not in itself create more spending or debt; it allows the Treasury to finance debt and spending obligations that have already been incurred. But politically, it has often been a difficult vote. Obama, as a senator, opposed a debt-ceiling increase sought by President George W. Bush.
At least two Democratic senators from Republican-leaning states, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, have said they will not vote to increase the debt ceiling without accompanying deficit reduction legislation.
But Senate leadership aides expressed confidence that they would have near-unanimity in the vote. Whether it passes will be up to at least six Republicans who will likely have to break a Republican filibuster. Depending on hurdles put up by hard-line conservatives, a final vote might not come until next Tuesday.