Republicans Pledge New Standoff on Debt Limit

May 16, 2012
By , The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner on Tuesday set the stage for a bruising election-year showdown on fiscal policy, vowing to hold up another increase in the federal debt ceiling unless it was offset by larger spending cuts.

His combative comments came on the same day the Republicans’ presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, hit President Obama hard on his fiscal stewardship in a speech in Des Moines, suggesting that Mr. Romney and Congressional Republicans see an opening to attack the president on the mounting federal debt and the size of the government.

Mr. Boehner’s stance threatened to throw Congress back into the debt-limit stalemate that consumed Washington in 2011, but this time at the height of a campaign that Republicans are trying to make a referendum on Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy.

“A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation,” Mr. Romney said, “and every day we fail to act we feed that fire with our own lack of resolve.”

The Boehner comments, made at a fiscal summit meeting in Washington, were the first public shot in what promises to be the most consequential budget fight in a generation. On Jan. 1, nearly $8 trillion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts are scheduled to take effect.

Mr. Boehner said he would not allow Congress to duck tough decisions with another round of short-term measures. He also said the House would pass an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts before the November elections, and he urged lawmakers both in parties to reach a long-term deal on spending and tax changes — but no additional taxes — to head off a fiscal calamity.

“To get on the path to prosperity, we have to avoid the fiscal cliff, but we need to start today,” he said.

Democrats immediately accused Mr. Boehner of once again holding the nation’s full faith and credit hostage to his conservative political agenda, even as Republicans cut corners on the deal struck last summer to end the last debt-ceiling crisis.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, speaking at the same meeting sponsored by the financier Peter G. Peterson, said the government could bump into its borrowing limit before the end of the year, but, he said, the Treasury has enough “tools” to keep the government afloat into early next year. That should push a debt-ceiling showdown well past the November election.

Mr. Geithner appealed to lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling “this time without the drama and the pain and damage that it caused the country last July.” And he said an orderly solution could be reached.

“Our objective should be to replace that very large set of expiring tax provisions and broad-based, automatic, pretty crude spending cuts with a more responsible, balanced glide path to fiscal sustainability,” he said.

Next year’s fiscal crisis has been brewing since early last decade, when successive Republican Congresses used budget rules to pass large but temporary tax cuts that could not be filibustered. The tax cuts expire en masse at the end of this year after Mr. Obama and Republican leaders agreed on a two-year extension. But the president has vowed not to extend the tax cuts for upper-income families again. Regardless of the election results, he will still be in the White House on Jan. 1.

Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said: “The American people are tired of kicking things down the road. We’ve got to get this done and done the right way.”

Top aides to Mr. Romney declined to say whether the campaign planned his speech to coincide with Mr. Boehner’s. But as Mr. Romney’s presidential campaign merges its operations more fully with the Republican establishment in Washington, the messages are becoming more similar. Republicans also have indicated they were eager to shift the discussion from social topics like same-sex marriageback to economic issues, which they believe play more to their advantage.

“The Obama campaign wants everybody to be distracted by shiny objects,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s political director. “He promised he would cut the debt and he has not done that.”

The exchange on fiscal policy came on the eve of a Senate budget showdown engineered by Republicans using an obscure procedural provision that says any senator can bring forward a budget if the Budget Committee fails to produce one by April 1.

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