House Republican leaders are considering a short-term increase in the U.S. debt limit as a possible way to break out of the gridlock that threatens the nation with an unprecedented default in as little as a week, officials said Wednesday night.
There now is far less urgency on Capitol Hill about ending the government shutdown, which heads into its 10th day today. It has caused inconvenience and financial concern for many individual Americans but appears not to threaten the widespread economic damage a default might bring.
The officials declined to say what conditions, if any, might be attached to legislation to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit for an undetermined period, perhaps a few weeks or months.
The GOP rank and file are expected to meet and discuss the issue today, before a delegation led by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, goes to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama.
Obama has said he won’t agree to sign a debt limit increase if conditions are attached. Republicans are demanding as yet-unspecified concessions to reduce deficits or make changes in the nation’s health care law.
At the same time, the House has voted to create a 20-member group of lawmakers from the House and Senate to negotiate over those and other issues — a bill that made no mention of the debt limit.
The officials describing the developments late Wednesday spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose details of private deliberations.
The disclosure came as Obama met at the White House in late afternoon for more than an hour with House Democrats.
He told them that while he would prefer legislation extending the Treasury’s borrowing ability beyond the next election, he would also sign a shorter-term bill.
In addition to leadership conversations, a group of House conservatives met privately during the day for what several officials described as a wide-ranging discussion on the debt limit and the threat — or lack of it — posed by default.
No consensus was reached, but among those who spoke was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate who is chairman of the House Budget Committee and a prominent deficit hawk.
In an op-ed article published during the day in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “We need to pay our bills today—and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. So let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.”
Raising the cost of Medicare for better-off beneficiaries and making changes to the tax code are perennials in budget negotiations, and precisely the type of item Obama says he is willing to discuss — but only after the government is open and the debt limit raised.
The private conversations stood in contrast to political maneuvering that characterized the day at the Capitol.
The House passed legislation that the Obama administration already had rendered unnecessary — on providing death benefits to families of military forces who die — while Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi met face-to-face — and promptly disagreed even about which side had requested the get-together.
Across the Capitol, the Senate focused its attention on a test vote — next weekend — on a $1 trillion increase in the debt limit to avert a default.
“Enough is enough,” said Barry Black, the Senate chaplain who has delivered a series of pointed sermonettes in recent days as lawmakers careen from crisis to crisis.
With Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on tap to testify before lawmakers today, officials said he was expected to reiterate that Congress needed to raise the government’s borrowing limit by Oct. 17 to be sure of preventing default.
Despite warnings from leaders of both political parties that a financial default could plunge the economy into recession, one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mo Brooks of Ala., said a default wouldn’t be the worst calamity to befall the country.
“Insolvency and bankruptcy” would be worse, he said, if the debt limit is raised without attaching measures to bring down the federal budget deficit.
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The nation’s largest manager of money market mutual funds was taking no chances. It said it had been selling off government debt holdings over the past couple of weeks and no longer held any that would come due around the time the nation could hit its borrowing limit. Fidelity Investments expects Congress to take the necessary steps to avoid default, but “we have to take precautionary measures,” said Nancy Prior, president of Fidelity’s Money Market Group
As the partial shutdown ground on, an Associated Press-GfK poll suggested the impact was anything but uniform. Only 17 percent of those polled said they or their households had experienced any impact, while 81 percent said they had not.
Who’s fault? Some 62 percent said Republicans were mostly or entirely to blame for the partial shutdown, which began on Oct. 1, while 49 percent said as much for Obama.
There was widespread agreement on one point. The country is widely dissatisfied with elected lawmakers.
A new Gallup poll put approval for Congress at 11 percent, a mere one in every nine adults. The AP-GfK survey made it 5 percent approval — and only 3 percent among independents, whose votes are the main prize in next fall’s midterm elections. Nationally, a whopping 83 percent of adults disapprove of Congress’ actions.