WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders are considering a short-term increase in the U.S. debt limit as a possible way to break out of the gridlock that threatens the nation with an unprecedented default in as little as a week, officials said Wednesday night.
There now is far less urgency on Capitol Hill about ending the government shutdown, which heads into its 10th day on today. It has caused inconvenience and financial concern for many individual Americans but appears not to threaten the widespread economic damage a default might bring.
The officials declined to say what conditions, if any, might be attached to legislation to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit for an undetermined period, perhaps a few weeks or months. The GOP rank and file are expected to meet and discuss the issue today, before a delegation led by Speaker John Boehner goes to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama.
Obama has said he won’t agree to sign a debt limit increase if conditions are attached. Republicans are demanding as yet-unspecified concessions to reduce deficits or make changes in the nation’s three-year-old health care law.
At the same time, the House has voted to create a 20-member group of lawmakers from the House and Senate to negotiate over those and other issues — a bill that made no mention of the debt limit.
The officials describing the developments late Wednesday spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose details of private deliberations.
The disclosure came as Obama met at the White House in late afternoon for with House Democrats. He told them while he would prefer legislation extending the Treasury’s borrowing ability beyond the next election, he would also sign a shorter-term bill.
In addition to leadership conversations, a group of House conservatives met privately during the day for what several officials described as a wide-ranging discussion on the debt limit and the threat — or lack of it — posed by default.
No consensus was reached, but among those who spoke was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate who is chairman of the House Budget Committee and a prominent deficit hawk. In an op-ed article published in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “We need to pay our bills today—and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. So let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.”
Raising the cost of Medicare for better-off beneficiaries and making changes to the tax code are perennials in budget negotiations, and precisely the type of item Obama said he is willing to discuss — but only after the government is open and the debt limit raised.
The private conversations stood in contrast to political maneuvering that characterized the day at the Capitol.
Its approval ratings scraping bottom, Congress took no discernible steps to end the nine-day partial government shutdown or to head off threatened default.
Instead, the House passed legislation the Obama administration already had rendered unnecessary — on providing death benefits to families of military forces who die — while Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi met face-to-face — and promptly disagreed even about which side had requested the get-together.
Across the Capitol, the Senate marked time under 18th century rules, focusing its attention on a test vote — next weekend — on a $1 trillion increase in the debt limit to avert a default.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is on tap to testify before lawmakers today. Officials said he was expected to iterate Congress needed to raise the government’s borrowing limit by Oct. 17 to be sure of preventing default.
“Insolvency and bankruptcy” would be worse, he said, warning that would be the result of yet another increase in the debt limit without attaching measures to bring down the federal budget deficit.