WASHINGTON — With no serious negotiations in sight, a disorderly and divided Congress slipped closer to a double-barreled fiscal crisis on Thursday as House Republican leaders tried to shift the budget dispute to a fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit.
Trying to round up votes from a reluctant rank and file, House Republicans said they would agree to increase the debt limit to avert a mid-October default only if Democrats accepted a list of Republican priorities, including a one-year delay of the health care law, a tax overhaul, and a broad rollback of environmental regulations.
At the same time, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio signaled he was not ready to abandon a spending fight that could shut down the federal government as soon as Tuesday. Asked whether he would put a stopgap spending bill to a vote free of Republican policy prescriptions, he answered, “I do not see that happening.”
President Obama, who has faced three years of down-to-the-wire standoffs that have nearly ended in default or shutdowns a half-dozen times, fired back with a broadside of his own.
“No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills, just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions on issues that have nothing to do with a budget,” Obama said before a friendly audience in suburban Washington.
The bitter back and forth in the absence of any high-level discussions between Republicans and Democrats was seen as increasing the possibility of a shutdown or default. It was a marked contrast from past showdowns when talks were taking place behind the scenes even as the parties traded public shots.
The Senate faces a critical vote Friday to cut off debate on legislation to keep the government open. If Democrats muster 60 votes, majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada will move to strip out House language that guts the health care law and pass a stopgap spending bill that funds the government through Nov. 15, without Republican policy prescriptions.
No one is sure how the House would react.
“There is no secret room where everyone is sitting down and hashing this out,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee.
House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia encouraged Democrats to come to the table.
“We call on the president to sit down with us, Harry Reid to sit down with us, and let’s resolve this problem,” he said.
But in their efforts to unify restive Republicans, House leaders were only widening the partisan divisions. Behind closed doors Thursday, they laid out their demands for a debt ceiling increase that include the health law delay, fast-track authority to overhaul the tax code, construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, offshore oil and gas production, and more permitting of energy exploration on federal lands.
The legislation would also roll back regulations on coal ash, block new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas production, eliminate a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, eliminate mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits, and increase means testing for Medicare, among other provisions.
Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the number two Democrat, derided the proposal.
“We call on the president to sit down with us . . . and let’s resolve this problem.”Eric Cantor, House majority leader and Republican representative from Virginia
“The House is attaching the Republican Party platform to the debt ceiling,” he said. “In a week full of absurdities, this one takes the cake.”
Republican divisions in the Senate burst into full public view Thursday. Incensed that hard-liners in his party were slowing final votes on legislation to keep the government open, Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, went to the Senate floor to accuse two fellow Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, of grandstanding for the benefit of their conservative-activist followers.
“Y’all have sent out releases and e-mails, and you want everybody to be able to watch,” he charged.
Economists of all political persuasions have warned that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by the Treasury’s deadline of Oct. 17 could be catastrophic.
The world economy’s faith in the safety of Treasury debt would be shaken for years, they believe. Interest rates could shoot up, and stock prices worldwide would most likely plummet.