WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is set to call the Democratic Party's bluff on the debt ceiling. The Ohio Republican, in a briefing with his conference on Saturday, announced that he would press for a short-term deal, with major spending cuts paired with longer-term deficit-reduction strategies, as a way around the current impasse.
That strategy puts the speaker directly at odds with the White House and allied Democrats, who have insisted for weeks that they would not support a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. The president went so far as to dare House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to test his opposition to a temporary deal during a tense meeting more than a week ago.
Whether that rigidity will fade as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling nears is a big gamble on Boehner's part.
A Democratic official familiar with negotiations said that at a 50-minute-long White House meeting on Saturday morning the president "said he would not accept a short term extension, because it could lead to a downgrade" of the United States' credit rating. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added that her caucus would not vote for a short-term deal.
"For the first time ever," the source said, "[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid was less committed."
Reid's (D-Nev.) office immediately disputed that account, with his top spokesman Adam Jentleson calling it "absolutely false." Minutes later, Reid's office sent out the following statement:
I want to reaffirm my statement from last night. I will not support any short-term agreement, and neither will President Obama nor Leader Pelosi. We seek an extension of the debt ceiling through at least the end of 2012. We will not send a message of uncertainty to the world.
Where that leaves Boehner is not entirely clear. What a short-term extension might include also remains unclear. Email requests for an explanation went unreturned.
According to several reports, Boehner will push for somewhere between $3 trillion and $4 trillion in spending cuts. While specifics on how much in cuts would be included in the first, short-term allotment is unknown, Boehner is demanding that the size of the cuts meet or exceed the size of any debt limit increase.
Talks led by Vice President Joe Biden concluded with an agreement on roughly $1.5 trillion in mostly discretionary spending cuts to be made over the course of 10 years. Beyond that figure, things grew trickier, with potential cuts to entitlement program spending coming into the mix.
The second part of Boehner's approach would involve a less specific strategy to find additional savings, including the creation of a deficit-reduction committee with the power to fast-track their recommendations through Congress. That idea was first championed by Reid.
The dual-track approach is, in the end, a roll of the dice on Boehner's part, primarily because it does not guarantee that the debt ceiling will be increased enough to last the government through the 2012 election cycle. Obama has said he won't sign such a bill, and Democratic leadership affirmed on Saturday that they would not support it either.
"They want two tranches with the future raise contingent upon approving the second tranche," explained a Democratic leadership aide. "We won't accept anything that does not get us through 2012 in one fell swoop. We are open to doing cuts in two tranches, but the raise has to be separate and through 2012."
Even Boehner's own party seemed skeptical that his plan could work.
“If it takes a short-term deal, they’ll bring it to the floor," Freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) told the Washington Post. "I think their concern about bringing it to the floor is whether they can get 218 [votes] or not," he said. “Everybody wants to only go through this pain once.”
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