Boehner determined to prevent default, sources say

Speaker John A. Boehner walked to the House Chamber for a vote on Thursday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Speaker John A. Boehner walked to the House Chamber for a vote on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — With a budget deal still elusive and a deadline approaching on raising the debt ceiling, Speaker John A. Boehner has told colleagues that he is determined to prevent a federal default and is willing to pass a measure through a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, according to multiple House Republicans.

One lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Boehner had indicated he would be willing to violate the so-called Hastert Rule if necessary to pass a debt-limit increase. The informal rule refers to a policy of not bringing to the floor any measure that does not have a majority of Republican votes.

A spokesman for Boehner pushed back on the idea that the speaker would try to pass a debt-limit increase mainly with Democratic votes but acknowledged that the speaker understood the need to head off a default.


“The speaker always, always prefers to pass legislation with a strong Republican majority,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.

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“The speaker has always been clear that a default would be disastrous for our economy,” Steel said. “He’s also been clear that a ‘clean’ debt hike cannot pass the House. That’s why the president and Senate Democrats should drop their ‘no negotiations’ stance and work with us on a plan to raise the debt limit in a responsible way, with spending cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again and create jobs.”

It is conceivable that Boehner could pass a debt-limit increase with a slim majority of Republican votes, and Democrats making up the difference, as he has in the past on budget measures. In meetings with Republican lawmakers, the speaker appeared to be offering reassurances to members worried about the government shutdown that he would not allow a default to take place.

Other Republicans also said Thursday that they got the sense that Boehner would do whatever was necessary to ensure that the country did not default on its debt.

Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., one of just 22 House Republicans this year who helped Boehner pass three crucial bills — to avert a fiscal showdown, to provide relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and to pass the Violence Against Women Act — with a majority of Democratic support, said he expected that he may be asked to do so again.


“Hurricane Sandy, the fiscal cliff, all of the big votes require reasonable Republicans and Democrats to come together in order to pass it and get it to the president’s desk,” he said. “This will be no different.”

And, Fitzpatrick added, “I’ve been there in the past, and I’m prepared to be there again.”

Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey, one of the moderate Republicans who met privately with Boehner on Wednesday, would not provide details of the meeting but said, “The speaker of the House does not want to default on the debt on the United States, and I believe he believes in Congress as an institution, and I certainly believe he is working for the best interests of the American people.”

Passing a measure with a majority of Democratic votes could cause trouble for Boehner from his right flank. He has so far refused to bring to the floor a measure that could halt the federal government shutdown but would require significant support from Democrats.

But the consequences of a default would be much more severe.


A Treasury Department report released Thursday said the debt-limit impasse could cause credit markets to freeze, the dollar to plummet and interest rates to rise precipitously. A default might prove catastrophic, the report said, and could potentially result “in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.”

The administration has made increasingly strong public warnings about the potential economic consequences of not increasing the debt limit.

“As reckless as a government shutdown is, as many people as are being hurt by a government shutdown, an economic shutdown that results from default would be dramatically worse,” President Barack Obama said Thursday, speaking to construction workers at M. Luis Construction in Rockville, Md., a suburb north of Washington.

He said that a default would be “the height of irresponsibility,” adding that “there will be no negotiations over this.”

“The United States is the center of the world economy,” Obama said, “so if we screw up, everybody gets screwed up — the whole world will have problems.”

Many market participants interpret the White House’s public statements as an effort to get Wall Street to pay attention, even to provoke a market reaction that might spur Congress to act.

“As we saw two years ago, prolonged uncertainty over whether our nation will pay its bills in full and on time hurts our economy,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement urging lawmakers to act. “Postponing a debt ceiling increase to the very last minute is exactly what our economy does not need — a self-inflicted wound harming families and businesses.”

The Treasury report shows that the congressional debt-limit standoff in 2011 hurt consumer confidence, small-business confidence, household wealth and the stock market, with ramifications for lending and the economic recovery.

“A precise estimate of the effects is impossible,” the report says, “and the current situation is different than that of late 2011, yet economic theory and empirical evidence is clear about the direction of the effect: a large, adverse, and persistent financial shock like the one that began in late 2011 would result in a slower economy with less hiring and a higher unemployment rate than would otherwise be the case.”

Reports from a variety of economists and investment banks have come to the same conclusion. The government’s running out of money would be unprecedented, and thus the fallout remains unknowable. But there is the potential for a market calamity that could have global ramifications.

“The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse,” Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said in a speech Thursday. “It is mission-critical that this be resolved as soon as possible.”

Economic officials have privately indicated that they are worried that Washington’s repeated flirtations with budgetary and financial crises have inured the markets to the real possibility of missed or delayed payments, or even default. By mid-October, the Treasury expects to have only $30 billion in cash on hand, meaning that on any given day it might have too little money to pay all the government’s bills.

The Dow Jones industrial average is about 1 percent higher than it was a month ago, and up about 15 percent this year. But the stock market has slid for the past two weeks. One-month Treasury yields have jumped to their highest level in nearly a year.

Right now, Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over financing the federal government. Some Republicans have suggested that a broader bargain, including changes to entitlement programs, might be one path forward. But the White House has insisted that Republicans not include the debt ceiling in any negotiations.

Nearly 190 Democrats, including all members of the party’s House leadership team, have signed a letter circulated by Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont supporting a “clean” debt-ceiling extension.

Republicans “view the health care bill as an existential threat to the country, and they are willing to use all tactics, including blowing up the economy, to get rid of Obamacare,” Welch said in an interview. “If shutdown and default become legitimate tactics, any Congress in the future could use those tactics to get their way.”

Wall Street “should be concerned,” Obama told CNBC on Wednesday. “When you have a situation in which a faction is willing to potentially default on U.S. government obligations, then we’re in trouble.”

He added that it was “important” for Wall Street “to recognize that this is going to have a profound impact on our economy and their bottom lines, their employees and their shareholders.”