Boehner intends ‘short-term’ fix to avert a shutdown


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he plans to avert a government shutdown at the end of September by passing a “short-term” budget bill that maintains sharp automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester.

“When we return, our intent is to move quickly on a short-term continuing resolution that keeps the government running and maintains current sequester spending levels,” Boehner (R-Ohio) said on a conference call with GOP lawmakers, according to a person on the call.

“Our message will remain clear,” Boehner said. “Until the president agrees to better cuts and reforms that help grow the economy and put us on path to a balanced budget, his sequester — the sequester he himself proposed, insisted on and signed into law — stays in place.”

On the call, Boehner did not address perhaps the most pressing issue facing Republican leaders: Whether to use the threat of a shutdown — or even a potential government default later this year — to try to force President Obama to delay implementation of his signature health insurance initiative. Conservatives in both the House and Senate, along with influential outside groups, are demanding that GOP leaders use the coming budget battles to undercut the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Senior GOP aides confirmed that House leaders are considering making demands related to the health initiative as part of any agreement for raising the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit. “Obamacare is one of many things we can pursue on debt limit,” a leadership aide said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Among the possibilities: delaying the mandate that requires individuals to purchase insurance beginning in January and codifying Obama’s own decision to delay penalties for businesses that fail to offer insurance to their workers next year.

However, the aide said, “This is all in the discussion phase right now.” And by making clear his intention to keep the government open, Boehner signaled that he is not inclined to stage a white-knuckle showdown over the fate of Obamacare right when lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 9 after the summer break.

Instead, Boehner urged his rank and file to follow the strategy he laid out earlier this summer that calls for “holding votes that chip away at the legislative coalition the president is using to force Obamacare on the nation.” Meanwhile, he urged them to focus on the victory of the sequester, which is scheduled to slice nearly $100 billion a year from the Pentagon and other agency budgets over the next decade.

Obama and other Democrats are eager to turn off the sequester and have offered a plan to replace the savings with a mix of tax in­creases and reforms to expensive health and retirement programs. Still, Democrats do not expect to resolve the dispute before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. And Boehner’s offer to continue funding the government at 2013 levels — rather than the lower levels slated to go into effect in 2014 — could form the basis for an agreement to get through the first of several deadlines facing Congress this fall.

The second deadline — the need to raise the debt limit — is more problematic, in part because no one knows exactly when it will hit.

During a speech Thursday to the Commonwealth Club of California, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew called on lawmakers to raise the debt limit as soon as they get back to town because “it is not possible for us to estimate with exact precision when Treasury will have to depend exclusively on cash on hand to meet our country’s commitments — or how long it will take before that cash runs out.”

“In just a few weeks, we will find ourselves once again perilously close to breaching the debt ceiling if Congress fails to act,” Lew said. “We cannot afford for Congress to wait until some unknowable last minute to resolve this matter on the eve of a deadline.”

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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