WASHINGTON — As the Treasury Department warned that a government debt default could trigger the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, the first cracks seemed to appear Thursday in House Republican resolve to use the debt limit as a political bargaining chip.
Word circulated on Capitol Hill that House Speaker John Boehner told some colleagues he may be willing to pass a measure raising the debt ceiling by using a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Such a vote, which would avert a financial meltdown, could trigger an internecine fight over his speakership.
Boehner has refused so far to take a similar action to end the partial government shutdown, which began Tuesday after lawmakers failed to reach a funding agreement. There were no negotiations and no breakthroughs as the shutdown headed into a fourth day Friday.
The Treasury Department said the federal government must raise its $16.7 trillion debt limit by Oct. 17 or else face a default that would be catastrophic to the American economy, freezing credit markets, dramatically devaluing the dollar, and sending interest rates skyrocketing.
“Postponing a debt ceiling increase to the very last minute is exactly what our economy does not need —
Possible signs that House leaders share some of those concerns arrived later in the day.
Unnamed officials told several media outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, that Boehner had sought to reassure some of the more moderate House members that he understood the full consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling. But it was not clear under what conditions Boehner might allow the House to take a vote without majority support from Republicans, or whether floating the idea was simply intended to test conservative reaction.
While Boehner and his Republican caucus have sought to weaken the new national health insurance law in exchange for a bill to fund government operations, their demands for raising the debt ceiling have focused on debt and deficit reduction.
Boehner’s spokesman, despite the media reports of a potential softening in Boehner’s position, said those requirements remain on the table.
“Speaker Boehner has always said that the United States will not default on its debt, but if we’re going to raise the debt limit, we need to deal with the drivers of our debt and deficits,” the spokesman, Michael Steel, said in a statement. “That’s why we need a bill with cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again.”
Obama said again Thursday he would not negotiate over either funding the government or raising the debt ceiling.
“Now, you’ll hear John Boehner and [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell and these other Republicans say, ‘We don’t want to default,’ ” Obama said at a speech in Rockville, Md. “But everybody knows — it’s written about in all the papers — that their basic theory is, OK, if the shutdown doesn’t work, then we are going to try to get some extra concessions out of the president.”
The developments came on a surreal day in Washington. As lawmakers traded blame for the government shutdown and searched for ways to end it, a car chase that began at the White House and ended outside the Capitol ended in police shooting and killing a woman driving the vehicle. As shots rang out, Congress was placed in lockdown conditions, and lawmakers were told to shelter in place.
“We realized, that’s not fireworks,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, who was standing on a House balcony between votes and talking about the potential financial crisis when he heard gunshots and saw police running with guns.
House members reassured loved ones that they were safe. Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, shrugged as he walked into the House chamber during the lockdown. “Safest place to be,” he said.
The incident only temporarily diverted attention from the pair of fiscal crises bedeviling the government. The Republican-led House continued to pass a series of piecemeal funding bills intended to pressure Democrats, who have blamed the shutdown on the GOP.
Republicans plan to meet behind closed doors Friday morning to discuss strategy. Many said they were unaware of Boehner’s reported statements on raising the debt limit and continued to doubt he would act without support from his rank-and-file members, including Tea Party Republicans.
Boehner has passed bills without majority Republican support only three times: on a deal to keep some of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, for Hurricane Sandy relief, and to renew the Violence Against Women Act. He has faced significant backlash from his rank and file in each instance.
GOP lawmakers remained divided Thursday, with some eager to resolve the standoff and others questioning the urgency of the debt ceiling.
“He’s not going to do that,” said Representative Timothy Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and member of the Tea Party, when asked whether Boehner might act without majority Republican support.
Huelskamp said Boehner would not raise the debt ceiling without achieving some basic fiscal reforms that would balance the budget within 10 years, including a repeal of the health care law.
Representative Patrick J. Tiberi, an Ohio Republican who is close to Boehner, urged Democrats to come to the negotiating table. He indicated that Boehner’s desire to prevent a default should not be seen as ceding leverage on the issue, because all parties have an interest in avoiding a potential calamity.
“The speaker doesn’t want to default on the debt and neither does the president and neither does [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid,” Tiberi said.
Representative Peter T. King, a moderate Republican from New York, was among the most adamant that Congress should prevent a default. But he said he had not heard a direct assurance that Boehner would break with the Tea Party if necessary.
“I want us to raise the debt ceiling, whatever it takes to get it done,” King said.
But Iowa Representative Steven A. King had another view, dismissing warnings from the Treasury Department.
“The resources are there,’’ he said. “The cash-flow is easily there to pay the interest on our debt. This isn’t a hard-break time on Oct. 17. It’s a very flexible date.”