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As congressional debt-ceiling plans founder, eyes turn to executive option

There is growing pressure on President Obama to simply declare an increase in the debt ceiling by executive order and tell everyone else: Deal with it.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2011

Senate majority leader Harry Reid whispers to House Speaker John Boehner before a meeting on the debt limit increase, on July 23 in Washington.

Harry Hamburg / AP

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Washington

After a derailed House vote Thursday night, congressional leaders are scrambling for support for competing ways to raise the debt limit before the nation’s borrowing capacity expires on Aug. 2 – including the prospect of doing the deed by executive power.

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President Obama made no direct reference to the executive option when he addressed the debt-ceiling crisis on Friday morning, saying simply, "There are plenty of ways out of this mess, but we are almost out of time.” He called for bipartisan action and slammed the GOP plan that failed to pass Thursday night: "It does not solve the problem and it has no chance of becoming law.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, whose leverage in negotiations with the White House depends on his ability to speak for and deliver a majority in the House.

House Republicans pulled their latest plan to resolve the crisis just minutes before a Thursday evening vote, after falling short in their vote count. The plan aimed to raise the debt limit by at least $2.5 trillion, but in two steps – an initial $915 billion in spending cuts to be followed by another $1.8 billion, negotiated by a bipartisan congressional panel.

The idea of revising such a divisive debate just months before the 2012 elections is a nonstarter for Democrats and the Obama White House, who say that the uncertainty will further damage a fragile recovery.

But GOP conservatives also balked at raising the debt limit without also requiring Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment. With House Democrats united in opposition, Mr. Boehner needs to win up to several dozen undecideds and at least two Republicans who are publicly committed to opposing a debt deal, according to whip counts shared with reporters.

It’s a tall order. Tea party groups and high-profile conservative organizations, such as the Club for Growth, are lobbying House Republicans, especially the 87-member freshman class, to not back down on campaign promises to oppose raising the debt limit.

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is moving forward Friday night with a bill that proposes to settle the debt limit issue through 2012. The plan is expected to include many of the spending cuts in the Boehner plan, but also includes some $1 trillion in cuts related to winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also establishes a joint congressional committee to propose longer-term deficit reduction. Together, Democrats say, those $2.4 trillion in spending cuts justify raising the debt limit in a single vote – and a two-stage vote has no chance of passing the Senate, they add.

“This is a pretty good deal,” said Senator Reid, speaking from the floor Friday morning. “They should put the chips in their pockets and walk away with a victory. There will be no time to consider another bill in the Senate.”

But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who has been working with the majority leader on a range of options to resolve the crisis, blasted Democrats for not producing the plan.

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