Boehner: No chance for "clean" bill on debt limit

House Speaker John Boehner announcing a deal had been reached to avert a government shutdown, April 8, 2011.
House Speaker John Boehner announcing a deal had been reached to avert a government shutdown, April 8, 2011.

With the fight over a spending bill settled (for now), another fight is brewing in Washington over raising the debt ceiling.

President Obama, who is advocating to raise the level at which the U.S. government is legally permitted to borrow, so as not to cause a default on payments, has said he wants to see a "clean" bill on the matter - one without attachments.

The leading Republicans in the House says no way.

On Saturday night House Speaker John Boehner declared, "The president says, 'I want you to send me a clean bill.' Guess what, Mr. President. Not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."

Boehner argued that "there's no plan to deal with the debt we're facing," and that Republicans would not vote to increase the limit unless Democrats conceded something "really, really big."

Schumer: Holding down debt ceiling plays with fire

According to projections by the Treasury, the U.S. government is expected to hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by the end of May. If Congress does not approve an increase to the limit, the federal government could default on its bonds for the first time in history, and Social Security and Medicare checks would likely see delays as a result of the government's inability to make payments to agencies.

"If anyone out there thinks that what has just happened here in Washington didn't send shivers down the spines of economists and people who follow this sort of thing, just wait until you see the impact on the economy if the United States has to start defaulting on its treasury bill," said CBS' Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

"The president has said he wants a clean bill. He wants an up-or-down vote on this to raise the debt ceiling," Schieffer continued. "Speaker Boehner made it pretty plain that is not going to happen."

In his remarks Saturday, Boehner emphasized that approving a hike to the debt limit would not come easily for President Obama.

Among the proposals being mentioned by Republicans are passing a two-year, rather than one-year budget; putting statutory caps on spending, and passing a constitutional amendment requiring the government to balance the budget.

Congress rejected a similar balanced budget amendment in 1997 - but the proposal came only one vote short of passage, and Republicans are touting that idea as a bargaining chip in the argument over the debt ceiling.

Nevertheless, the passage of such a constitutional amendment is unlikely, as it would require both a two-thirds majority in the House and the Democratically-controlled Senate, and ratification in at least 38 states, in order to gain passage. (For context, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times since its ratification in 1788.)

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said in a March 29 interview that a balanced budget amendment "would virtually ensure that an economic downturn would end up as a deep depression, by erasing any real ability of the government to pursue countercyclical fiscal policies and in fact demanding the opposite, at the worst possible time.

"It is about the most irresponsible action imaginable," he added.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, defended Boehner's comments on "Face the Nation," arguing that "We've got to talk about the systemic problem that we have."

"We limited how much debt congressional action that the country could assume," he told Schieffer. "We reached that limit far sooner than we thought because the spending is surging out of control. So the question now is, should we raise it? And the American people are saying, 'Children, you've misbehaved. You've spent too much of our money.'"

On the same program, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer countered that prolonging the debate over the debt limit to the last minute was akin to "playing with fire" - and that it "could be a formula for recession or worse."

"Speaker Boehner had to keep [budget] negotiations going to the last minute to show the Tea Party people he was doing everything he could," Schumer said of last week's down-to-the-wire debate over funding the federal government through the end of the 2011 fiscal year. "You cannot do that with the debt ceiling. That is playing with fire - because if the markets believe we are not going to pay our debt, it could be a formula for recession or worse."

White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee said earlier this year that failing to raise the debt ceiling could prove deeply damaging to the U.S. economy.

"If we hit the debt ceiling, that's ... essentially defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history," Goolsbee warned, in a January interview with ABC's "This Week." "The impact on the economy would be catastrophic."