The Washington Post

Will Obama, Congress negotiate over debt ceiling? It’s not clear.

To talk or not to talk, that appears to increasingly be the question as Washington faces down a new crisis over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

President Obama forcefully reiterated Monday that he considers raising the nation’s legal borrowing limit to simply be a congressional responsibility and again insisted he will not engage in negotiations to trade a hike in the limit for spending cuts.

In other words, don’t talk-- just do it.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, meanwhile, insists Americans won’t tolerate Congress raising the ceiling without also agreeing to changes in entitlement programs that will slow the growth of government.

But he’s promised rank-and-file Republicans he’s done with high-level talks with Obama that his members believe have been fruitless over the last two years.

Obama’s news conference in two minutes. The president aggressively pushed his debt ceiling agenda on Monday during the final press conference of his first term. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

Instead, the House will pursue “regular order,” with members proposing spending bills that leaders will allow to bubble up through the committee structure and then onto the House floor.

In other words, don’t talk — just legislate.

Both positions run counter to Washington’s last several rounds of fiscal clashes, and they make predictions about the next few weeks--as the nation approaches the $16.4 trillion ceiling in late February--particularly murky.

Past battles have taken on a familiar pattern: There are solemn summits at the White House. The two sides trade offers and phone calls. There are flurries of private activity followed by blow-ups and periods of inactivity.

But always before, there has been some kind of last minute deal, negotiated between two leaders.

There was plenty of communicating the last time Congress agreed to allow the debt ceiling to rise, in the summer of 2011.

First, Vice President Biden led a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, in months of closed door meetings to discuss ways to raise the debt ceiling and also reduce the deficit.

When they couldn’t agree, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) engaged in high-stakes one-on-one talks over a “grand bargain” over new tax revenues, spending cuts, entitlement changes and new borrowing authority for the government.

When those talks collapsed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Biden crafted a last-minute, more modest deal to pair a debt ceiling increase with by $1 trillion in spending cuts over a decade and the establishment of a new bipartisan deficit reduction supercommittee to find yet more cuts.

Then the 12-member supercommittee did plenty of talking, most of it behind closed doors, all throughout the fall of 2011. It, too, failed to agree.

And there were lots of talks in November and December of this year, as Congress and Obama sought to avoid the so-called year end fiscal cliff of scheduled tax increases and automatic spending cuts.

Boehner and Obama again negotiated one-on-one. And when they failed, Congress once again adopted a last minute deal hatched by McConnell and Biden that delayed the spending cuts by two months and allows taxes to rise on those making more than $450,000.

But this time?

“What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people... That is not how historically this has been done,” Obama said Monday, indicating he will discuss how to reduce the deficit with Republicans--but not in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. “That’s not how we’re going to do it this time.”

Given that, how exactly it is going to get done is not exactly clear.

Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he is absolutely confident Congress will ultimately agree to raise the debt ceiling, right around the time the nation runs up against the limit.

But as for how that happens, he said, “that’s the question I can’t answer.”

“I suspect no one in the world has the answer for that,” he said.

In a statement Monday, Boehner promised the House will act.

“The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running,” he said, adding, “we will insist that the Democratic majority in Washington do the same.”

It is not yet clear what kind of debt ceiling-raising legislation Boehner could steer past his own restive members and get approval House without Democratic support. That will likely be the topic of vigorous discussion at a retreat for House Republicans in Williamsburg later this week.

McConnell has said he too is not interested in coming up with a last second deal, as he has in past crises.

“The Senate majority must act on legislation early in February—rather than waiting until the last minute, abdicating responsibility and hoping someone else will step in once again to craft a last-minute solution for them,” he said earlier this month.

Senate Democrats will likely advance their own proposal to raise the debt ceiling in coming weeks, a Democratic aide said. One option would be a clear debt ceiling increase, unconnected to any spending cuts. Another would be to essentially shift responsibility for raising the borrowing limit to the president, allowing Congress to only nix future increases on a two=thirds vote.

Neither proposal would be likely to survive a Republican filibuster.

For now, as both sides advance their own proposals, there’s likely to be little bipartisan action for weeks. Washington will soon be consumed with President Obama’s inauguration and then the Senate will turn its attention to fights over confirmations for top cabinet positions.

“I suspect there’s going to be a few weeks of staring at each other,” Bell said.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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