GOP Still Looking At Pieces Of Debt Limit 'Puzzle'

Friday is the statutory deadline for the Treasury's borrowing authority, but Congress has no agreement on how to raise the limit. House Republicans appear unwilling to force another showdown over the debt ceiling, but they have not yet found a way to save face, and there are few legislative days left before Treasury exhausts its means to pay the bills.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Today at the stroke of noon in Washington D.C., the U.S. Treasury statutory authority to borrow money will expire. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The statutory authority to borrow money expires at close of business, not at noon.]

GREENE: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says there are ways to move some funds around to prevent a debt default, but only for the next three weeks. It's now up to Congress once again to raise the debt limit. In the past, House Republicans have used such an occasion to extract concessions such as spending cuts.

MONTAGNE: But this time President Obama and congressional Democrats say they refuse to negotiate on the debt limit and as NPR's David Welna reports, Republicans are showing little appetite for a fight.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As the House wrapped up its last session of the week yesterday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor sought to downplay the fact that only seven legislating days remain before the Treasury expects to run out of money. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The U.S. Treasury will not run out of money by the end of the month. Rather, it will completely exhaust its "extraordinary measures" for borrowing money and may not be able to pay the nation's obligations, as the bills on any given day may exceed the cash on hand.]

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE SESSION)

HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER ERIC CANTOR: I'm confident that the United States is not going to default on its debt and that we will resolve the need to increase the borrowing authority of this country prior to any deadline that the Treasury issues.

WELNA: Meanwhile, at a news conference below the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner was being grilled by reporters about how and when the debt limit would be raised. Boehner promised there would be no default on the debt but he also said Republicans were still looking for, as he put it, the pieces to this puzzle.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: We're in discussions with members about how we can move ahead. We've got time to do this. We're going to continue to work at it. No decisions - no decisions have been made.

WELNA: House GOP leaders have tried over the past few days to entice their members to pass a debt limit hike by offering to attach things to it such as building the Keystone XL pipeline or repealing a part of the health care law. At another news conference yesterday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi scoffed at those efforts.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI: The only reason that the Speaker is adding those things is because his caucus does not want to vote to honor the full faith and credit of the (unintelligible) unless they have a cookie in their lunch.

WELNA: Some House Republicans simply won't vote for a debt limit increase that has no strings attached. One of them is North Carolina's Renee Ellmers.

REP. RENEE ELLMERS: I know there will probably be a handful of Republicans who would vote for a clean debt ceiling increase. I certainly can't be one of them.

WELNA: But many other House Republicans, including Florida's Tom Rooney fear a standoff over the debt ceiling would only hurt their party.

REP. TOM ROONEY: We've dug our heels in before and we flirted with, you know, default. We shut the government down. And that's just not, you know, a place that we want to go again.

WELNA: Idaho Republican Raul Labrador says the solution is simple.

REP. RAUL LABRADOR: If they're not going to negotiate then I think we should raise the debt ceiling. Let the Democrats vote for it and they can own it in the next election.

WELNA: Labrador says if the GOP majority simply votes present the Democratic minority could raise the debt ceiling. Fine, says Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree.

REP. CHELLIE PINGREE: You know, it's a little too clever and I don't know how the American public would perceive it, but if it keeps this from being stuck in Congress, shutting down the government, holding up the markets, making the world feel uncomfortable, I'm all for whatever they do to move this forward.

WELNA: Speaker Boehner did acknowledge, yesterday, that he will need Democrats to raise the debt limit. Even if making Mother Teresa a saint were the condition for hiking the debt limit, Boehner quipped, there probably would not be enough Republican votes to pass it. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Correction Feb. 8, 2014

We incorrectly say that the debt limit expires at noon on Friday. The actual time is close of business on Friday. We also incorrectly report that the Treasury will run out of money at the end of the month. Rather, by the end of the month the Treasury will completely exhaust its "extraordinary measures" for borrowing money and may not be able to pay the nation's obligations, as the bills on any given day may exceed the cash on hand.

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