House Republicans back off from fiscal clash with Obama

WASHINGTON Fri Jan 18, 2013 6:37pm EST

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) speak to the media on the ''fiscal cliff'' on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 21, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) speak to the media on the ''fiscal cliff'' on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives backed away on Friday from a fiscal clash with President Barack Obama next month that could have risked a government default and chaos in financial markets, shifting to a new, less aggressive stance.

Top Republican leaders, meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, said they were prepared to allow the U.S. government to borrow enough money to keep it fully operating for the next three months without demanding immediate spending cuts from Obama.

Instead, the Republicans, who control the House, will require as part of the legislation raising the debt ceiling that the Democratic-led Senate pass a budget plan by April 15.

If the Senate fails to act, they said, members of Congress would not get paid. How that might work in practice, in light of existing budget law and constitutional restrictions on changing congressional salaries in the middle of a term, was unclear. House Republicans hope to pass the legislation next week.

Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, made the announcement after an annual retreat at a resort in Williamsburg, where members listened to pollsters describe the party's decline in standing among American voters.

It followed a humiliating defeat in the "fiscal cliff" battle that ended on New Year's Day with Obama getting tax increases he sought on the wealthy without committing to significant budget cuts Republicans were seeking in return.

World equity and oil prices rebounded after the statement by the Republican leaders.

STRATEGIC SHIFT

The announcement marked a major climbdown for Republicans, who have seen the debt ceiling as their strongest point of leverage in Washington's partisan spending wars, despite the consternation it caused the White House, global financial markets and public opinion.

The White House on Friday welcomed the three-month extension plan as long as it was not conditioned on spending cuts. Obama has argued that negotiations on spending cuts should be part of larger deficit reduction talks, and not be tied to the debt ceiling.

"We are encouraged that there are signs that Congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle class families depend on," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also said the Republican approach was reassuring.

"If the House can pass a clean debt ceiling increase to avoid default and allow the United States to meet its existing obligations, we will be happy to consider it," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was less receptive. "This proposal does not relieve the uncertainty faced by small businesses, the markets and the middle class. This is a gimmick unworthy of the challenges we face and the national debate," Drew Hammill said.

The details on the new Republican approach appeared less pressing to party leaders than defusing the politically and economically explosive debt ceiling battle that was expected in late February and early March.

The Treasury needs congressional authorization to raise the current $16.4 trillion U.S. debt limit sometime between mid-February and early March. How long a debt ceiling lasts - a few months or a few years - depends on the amount of borrowing authorized.

Republicans had promised to use the occasion to demand deep spending cuts from Obama and his Democrats, and some had said they were willing to push the government to the brink of default if their demands were not met.

That sort of rhetoric all but vanished on Friday.

"Next week, we will authorize a three month temporary debt limit increase to give the Senate and House time to pass a budget," Cantor said in a statement.

"Furthermore, if the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, Members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay."

The statement made no mention of the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that no law "varying the compensation" of members of Congress shall take effect until after an intervening congressional election.

The plan aims to draw the Senate into action to shrink deficits. The Senate has failed to pass a formal budget resolution in nearly four years, and it has taken no action on House-passed Republican budgets.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's Republican minority leader, said in a statement he welcomed the pressure on his Democratic counterparts who had "prevented this body from performing its most basic of duties: passing a federal budget."

RETREAT REFLECTION

A key theme to emerge at the Williamsburg conference was a willingness to pursue more incremental steps on deficit reduction. Rather than one massive deal, each fiscal deadline would represent an opportunity to find savings.

After the deadline for a debt ceiling increase, Congress faces a March 1 deadline to avert automatic spending cuts, and the March 27 expiration of funding for government agencies and programs. A three-month debt limit extension would add a further deadline in April or May.

Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, one of the House's most conservative budget hawks, said he had concluded that smaller steps were the best path forward in dealing with the immediate fiscal crisis.

Instead of passing regular budgets to try to reduce spending, Congress has relied largely on stop-gap spending measures, known as continuing resolutions, to keep the government running.

Senate leaders have said there was no need to pass a budget for the past two fiscal years because the last major budget deal in 2011 set spending levels that were more legally enforceable.

A House Republican leadership aide said it was not anticipated the three-month debt limit legislation would include spending cuts.

Although Boehner previously sought at least $1 in long-term spending cuts for every dollar of debt limit increase, the aide said the reforms associated with requiring budgets from both chambers would meet the speaker's requirements.

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)

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Comments (55)
jaham wrote:
Oh, how I wish we had THIS Barrack Obama as President:

“Mr. President, I rise today to talk about America’s debt problem. The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. Over the past five years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is ‘‘trillion’’ with a ‘‘T.’’ That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next five years, between now and 2011, the president’s budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion. Numbers that large are sometimes hard to understand. Some people may wonder why they matter. Here is why: This year, the federal government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we’ll spend on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation and veterans benefits combined. It is more money in one year than we are likely to spend to rebuild the devastated gulf coast in a way that honors the best of America. And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and states of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health-care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on. Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America’s priorities. Instead, interest payments are a significant tax on all Americans — a debt tax that Washington doesn’t want to talk about. If Washington were serious about honest tax relief in this country, we would see an effort to reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies. But we are not doing that. Despite repeated efforts by Senators Conrad and Feingold, the Senate continues to reject a return to the commonsense pay-go rules that used to apply. Previously, pay-go rules applied both to increases in mandatory spending and to tax cuts. The Senate had to abide by the commonsense budgeting principle of balancing expenses and revenues. Unfortunately, the principle was abandoned, and now the demands of budget discipline apply only to spending. As a result, tax breaks have not been paid for by reductions in Federal spending, and thus the only way to pay for them has been to increase our deficit to historically high levels and borrow more and more money. Now we have to pay for those tax breaks plus the cost of borrowing for them. Instead of reducing the deficit, as some people claimed, the fiscal policies of this administration and its allies in Congress will add more than $600 million in debt for each of the next five years. That is why I will once again co-sponsor the pay-go amendment and continue to hope that my colleagues will return to a smart rule that has worked in the past and can work again. Our debt also matters internationally. My friend, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, likes to remind us that it took 42 presidents 224 years to run up only $1 trillion of foreign-held debt. This administration did more than that in just five years. Now, there is nothing wrong with borrowing from foreign countries. But we must remember that the more we depend on foreign nations to lend us money, the more our economic security is tied to the whims of foreign leaders whose interests might not be aligned with ours. Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

- Senator Obama , March 16th, 2006

Jan 18, 2013 1:21pm EST  --  Report as abuse
tatman wrote:
can we make the pay freeze retroactive, back to 2008 when this congress began its deplorable dereliction of duty on the largest scale since congress’ conception? while we’re at it, let’s stop these criminals from receiving lifetime benefits and the poshest health care that no other American can obtain. NO WORK=NO PAY. and they’ve done far less work than any congress in history. I’d say we go to a public rating=pay scale system. every year their approval rating falls below 50%, they receive a comparable cut in pay as a penalty for their poor performance… then, if no improvement, TERMINATION. i can’t think of any other job in America where you continue to get pay raises, perks and benefits when you willfully defy the will of your employer (in this case, the American people) and don’t accomplish even your most basic responsibilities.

Jan 18, 2013 1:30pm EST  --  Report as abuse
redmerlot wrote:
The only “humiliating defeat” we have here is the constant, quarter-after-quarter humiliating defeat of the few remaining middle-class people who are doing all the work and getting soaked for all of this inept Government’s inaction.

Another 3 months. Another debt ceiling increase. “Demanding a budget plan”. HA HA HA. So what? They will pass some meaningless “budget” that has blank lines in it “to be decided in yet another 3 months”.

And 3 more months will pass, and they will pass another budget that agrees to, um, do nothing except put off the decisions for yet another 3 months.

I didn’t vote for any of these morons this last time. I just can’t anymore. I voted Libertarian this past time, even though I only partly subscribe to their policies. We must purge all the people who are running this Gov’t, people. Both parties are complete failures.

Jan 18, 2013 5:36pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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