WASHINGTON -- Apparently healed from the trauma caused by last summer's debt-ceiling showdown, House Republicans and the White House have begun an eight-month long standoff over the next debt-ceiling fight.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met for lunch Wednesday, during which the predictable battle lines were drawn over allowing the U.S. government to pay off its financial obligations for the foreseeable future. According to a readout of the meeting from Boehner's office, the president made it clear that he wanted a debt-ceiling increase without any attached spending cuts.
Boehner responded with the equivalent of "no f-ing way."
"As long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt-ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt," said Boehner.
For those who survived last summer's negotiations, the notion that any party would willingly relive those tense weeks is insane. While more than a trillion dollars in spending reductions were achieved (with a trillion-plus more in combined defense, entitlement and discretionary spending cuts set to be triggered at the end of this year), it was not without immense political cost. Both parties took a major hit in the polls (Republicans were blamed more than the president) while S+P downgraded the credit rating of the United States government -- citing skepticism that any constructive debt reduction could be done in the current political climate.
But Washington's pols seem to have limited short-term memories. This week, the House GOP leadership began making it clear that its main regret about last summer's negotiations was that the party didn't push for more.
"When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt-limit increase," Boehner said Tuesday in a speech at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2012 fiscal summit. "This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance."
The most current projections for when the debt ceiling will be reached is sometime in late winter of 2012. The bipartisan Policy Center has offered up a window of mid-November to early January, depending on what revenues are generated by Treasury.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said on Tuesday that the country was "likely to hit the debt limit sometime before the end of the year." But, he noted, "Congress has given the executive branch a set of tools" that could -- if put to use -– "buy them some time" (likely into early 2013). A Treasury official elaborated that those tools were "extraordinary measure(s)" such as temporarily borrowing from the federal employee's retirement plan, "to give us room so that if we hit the debt limit we don't actually hit the debt limit."
With that timetable in mind, the White House on Wednesday made two points. There was a commitment to a clean debt-ceiling increase. There also were admonitions about making politics out of what had historically been, a routine debt-ceiling increase process.
The president, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, "simply will not accept an approach that tries to recreate the self-inflicted political wounds that caused harm to the economy last summer."
"I think you have to ask the speaker of the House whether or not he intends or believes it is the right thing to do ... to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States government," Carney added.
This, of course, was the same script that administration officials used in the Spring of 2011, only to eventually seek compromise with congressional Republicans. Whether that will happen during the next go-around seems likely to be influenced by other, large-scale events. The Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire on Dec. 31, the same date when the triggered spending cuts will take effect. Obama may be on his way out of office with President-elect Romney heading in.
In short, the impasses could be even more intractable than the first time, with an economic climate even less stable. That said, there was glimmer of good news from Wednesday's Obama-Boehner meeting. The speaker, his office confirmed, "was very pleased with the sandwiches served."
UPDATE: 3:50 p.m. -- More information from the White House meeting is starting to trickle in. According to a Senate Democratic aide, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged both sides to put off negotiations over the debt ceiling until after they had finalized talks on the Bush tax cuts and the triggers.
"Since no debt ceiling increase will likely be necessary until after the end of the year, Senator Reid conveyed his view that any discussion of the debt ceiling is premature," the aide emailed.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, remarked mainly on the need to press forward with legislation that could garner 60 votes in the Senate, including a bill to keep student-loan interest rates at their current levels. His comments on the debt ceiling, an aide said, were mainly about the need to "do something serious about the deficit" as part of any deal.