WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner has privately told Republican lawmakers anxious about fallout from the government shutdown that he would not allow a potentially more crippling federal default as the atmosphere on Capitol Hill turned increasingly tense Thursday.
Boehner’s comments, recounted by multiple lawmakers, that he would use a combination of Republican and Democratic votes to increase the federal debt limit if necessary appeared aimed at reassuring his colleagues — and nervous financial markets — that he did not intend to let the economic crisis spiral further out of control. They came even though he has refused to allow a vote on a Senate budget measure to end the shutdown that many say could pass with bipartisan backing. The comments also reflect Boehner’s view that a default would have widespread and long-term economic consequences while the shutdown, though disruptive, has had more limited impact.
The shutdown was clearly leaving its mark. The National Transportation Safety Board wasn’t sending investigators to Tennessee to investigate a deadly church-bus crash that killed eight people and sent 14 others to the hospital. The Labor Department said it wouldn’t release the highly anticipated September jobs report Friday.
With the mood in Congress unsettled by the sparring over the fiscal standoff, the Capitol was shaken anew Thursday when a high-speed chase beginning near the White House ended near the Senate office complex with Capitol Police fatally shooting the driver. The sound of gunfire outside the Capitol led to a temporary lockdown of members of Congress and their staffs. The House and Senate adjourned for the day shortly after the incident.
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Along with Sen. Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, Boehner has long dismissed the idea that Congress would not act to prevent a damaging default, and President Obama on Thursday called a default “the height of irresponsibility.” But the failure of the House and Senate to reach a deal ahead of the shutdown has raised questions of whether Republicans could be persuaded to join in raising the debt limit before the Treasury Department runs out of money in mid-October.
In meetings, Boehner has emphasized that he will not permit the country to default for the first time on its $16.7 trillion debt. Given that a bloc of hard-line conservatives is unlikely to vote to increase the limit under any circumstances, Boehner has told Republicans they must craft an agreement that can attract significant Democratic support.
“This needs to be a big bipartisan deal,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close Boehner ally, said as he emerged from a meeting in the speaker’s office Thursday. “This is much more about the debt ceiling and a larger budget agreement than it is about Obamacare.”
Boehner’s comments were read by members of both parties as renewing his determination on the default and came as the Treasury warned that an impasse over raising the debt limit might prove catastrophic and potentially result “in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.”
Lawmakers said that in recent days, Boehner has made clear he is willing to use a combination of Republican and Democratic votes on the debt limit if need be.
One lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Boehner suggested he would be willing to violate the Hastert Rule 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.
It is conceivable Boehner could pass a debt-limit increase with a slim majority of Republican votes, with Democrats making up the difference, as he has in the past on budget measures. But that poses risks of a threat to Boehner’s leadership position from a conservative bloc that has warned that his post could be on the line.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., one of his conference’s more conservative members, said he doubted Boehner would be able to pass any bill — with or without Democratic support — that did not extract some significant concessions from Obama and Senate Democrats.
“I just don’t think there’d be hardly any Republicans in support of raising the debt ceiling without cuts to spending, changes to Obamacare, and perhaps other issues,” Fleming said. He added that he thought House Republicans would demand at least some sort of delay to the president’s health-care law, and require that every dollar increase in the debt ceiling be matched by a dollar increase in spending cuts.
Growing numbers of House Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed frustration at those insisting on changes to the health law when Obama has made clear he will not accept them. Their unhappiness, the furor caused by the shutdown and the desire to avoid default could help protect Boehner.
Democrats saw the disclosure of Boehner’s private comments as a possible sign of progress. “Even coming close to the edge of default is very dangerous, and putting this issue to rest significantly ahead of the default date would allow everyone in the country to breathe a huge sigh of relief,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate.
Meanwhile, even the Senate chaplain got drawn into the rising intensity of the partisan battle, opening Thursday’s session with an unusually pointed prayer.
“Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable,” said Dr. Barry Black. “Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of this government shutdown.”
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.