Congressional Showdown Over Debt Limit Could Happen Later Than Expected

As they broke from a three-day retreat in Williamsburg, Va., House leaders offered President Obama and the Senate a temporary three month increase of the debt ceiling. David Welna talks to Robert Siegel about the proposal.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A congressional showdown over the nation's debt limit may not happen as soon as expected. That's because House Republican leaders announced today that they are taking up legislation next week to extend the Treasury's borrowing limit for three more months. The surprise move comes at the end of the two-day House GOP retreat at a resort outside colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna is there and joins us now.

And David, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said the Treasury could run out of ways to pay the bills by mid-February unless the debt ceiling is raised. What does this extension, assuming it happens, what does it mean for that deadline and why the sudden turn from Republicans who seemed eager for a fight over the debt limit?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, it would do away with that deadline, assuming such a measure does get passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by President Obama. If that happens, the big showdown over longer term raising of the debt ceiling, say, another two years, would be put off until April. I think what we're seeing here is a kind of a political blink, a recognition by House Republicans that while they may want a lot of concessions from Democrats, such as big spending cuts and entitlement reforms in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, they're not in a very good political position to get those concessions at a time when Democrats have just expanded their numbers in both the House and Senate and President Obama's won a second term.

I also think just not that many Republicans have the stomach to see what might happen should the country actually go into default. Republicans have already taken the blame for the debt ratings downgrade in the last debt ceiling debacle.

SIEGEL: Well, the last time that we had a showdown over the debt ceiling, it was August, 2011, and the Republicans were talking about a dollar for dollar - every dollar the debt ceiling was raised, a dollar's worth of spending had to be cut. Are they making the same kinds of demand for this short term extension?

WELNA: Not for this three month extension and that won some praise today from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but Reid can't be happy about a demand House Republicans are making for this short term measure. They're going to include language that says until the Senate passes a budget, which it hasn't done for the past three years, the paychecks of all Senators will be withheld until a budget is passed.

Don't look for a lot of votes from Senate Democrats for that one. Also, an aide to Speaker John Boehner told me today that House Republicans won't agree to a longer term increase in the debt ceiling until a budget is passed. And April 15th, the day the short-term extension would run out is the same day a budget is due by law, so I would not rule out another Donnybrook over the debt ceiling around then.

SIEGEL: Now, there's another deadline looming out there, March 1st. On that date, the massive automatic spending cuts, which were delayed just last month, are set to kick in. Also, the government will run out of funding by the end of March, risking a possible shutdown. What's the Republican thinking, pushing the debt ceiling debate to the last of these big fights instead of the first?

WELNA: Well, I think it's mainly because Republicans realize they may not get much in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and so they think that they can - they have a stronger hand to play in these other fiscal fights that you just mentioned. They think that they can get concessions from President Obama both on spending cuts and possibly on entitlement reform. And those would be trophies for them to sort of brandish. If they're forced to fold in the debt ceiling fight in April, they could say we got something, at least.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, David. NPR congressional correspondent, David Welna.

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