Barack Obama had hoagies with the Congressional leadership yesterday. And he broached the subject of the debt limit, which House Speaker John Boehner vowed to take hostage this week. Consider this a first stab at negotiation. It didn’t work out all that well.
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.
Notice that the readout came from Boehner’s office. I haven’t seen any communication on this meeting from the White House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to order things differently, saying that the more pressing issue was the fiscal cliff, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the beginning of the trigger cuts to domestic and defense spending set for the end of the year. “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,” according to aides to Reid. As for Mitch McConnell, also a participant, he mainly wanted to talk about even more near-term issues, like the bill to stop student loan interest rates from doubling. But he appeared to back up Boehner: “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.” No word on what Nancy Pelosi had to say about this.
What we know now is the opening bid on both sides. The President and his party want a clean debt limit increase. Reid’s sequencing takes away the leverage that Boehner and the Republicans hold, so that’s consistent. Republicans want the debt limit paired with spending cuts, full stop. In his briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Jay Carney highlighted the last time that the debt limit became a major issue:
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.
The difference here is that the White House wanted a game of chicken on the debt limit last year. They wanted the forcing event that would lead to a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending. They wanted it, we found out, more than the Republicans, who balked at the very end. That time hasn’t passed – the White House still wants a grand bargain – but they think they’ve found a different forcing event, the fiscal cliff, which is more advantageous to them, and doesn’t threaten an historic default on the debt.
As for getting the debt limit increased, I don’t really see a strategy on either side other than just hunkering down. Hunkering down usually works for Republicans on negotiations than the more pliant Democrats. However, that’s not always true (see the payroll tax cut), and there will be a new Congress – possibly a new President – when the debt limit is reached, so it’s hard to say how the politics will play out; we don’t know the major players yet. But the first pass at negotiations didn’t exactly nail anything down.