House Republicans Move To Avert Debt Crisis...For A While

The 10-day-old government shut down and the need to raise the federal debt limit next week have been tied together as a single political crisis. But now, House Republicans seem ready to cleave the debt ceiling debate. Economists of all stripes say breaching the debt ceiling could be catastrophic, and on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said he is prepared to support a bill to raise the debt ceiling for six weeks if the president will agree to negotiations on long-term deficit reduction. None of this has anything to do with the initial fight to repeal or delay the Affordable Care Act, but may be a start toward resolution.

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The stock market soared more than 300 points today on news of a possible break in the political logjam here in Washington. House Republicans offered a short-term increase in the federal debt limit. If approved, that would lift the threat of a government default, at least temporarily. The Obama administration reacted cautiously to the offer, which does not include re-opening the federal government. The president is meeting with top House Republicans at this hour.

And joining us now to sort all this out is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi. Good to be with you.

BLOCK: Do you think this is a real breakthrough or just more political maneuvering?

HORSLEY: Well, a good question. Obviously, the markets are cheering as if it were a real resolution. Wall Street is in a mood for some good news. We are just a week away from staring at that debt ceiling and the threat of a default. So House Republicans huddled this morning to discuss their next move. And here's what House Republican leader Eric Cantor had to say after that meeting.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: What we have discussed as a conference is a temporary extension of the debt ceiling in exchange for a real commitment by this president and the Senate majority leader to sit down and talk about the pressing problems that are facing all the American people.

HORSLEY: Now, we're still waiting to see the details of that GOP proposal, but it seems to come free of partisan strings, like a demand for a delay in the president's health care law.

BLOCK: And that's what the White House demanded. Also, though, Scott, this would not end the government shutdown as we mentioned. So what are we hearing from the White House about this?

HORSLEY: You know, the president and the House speaker has sort of been circling each other for the last 10 days, and this represents a step by John Boehner in Obama's direction. What's unclear from the White House point of view is whether this is a step towards a handshake or a headlock. You know, they're a little bit nervous that the Republicans could turn the table on the White House here and make the president look like he's being unreasonable. So White House spokesman Jay Carney was very guarded when he was asked today about this Republican offer.

JAY CARNEY: I think we ought to see whether they're serious about putting the matches and the gasoline aside when it comes to threatening default. And if they're serious, we'll evaluate what they move forward on.

HORSLEY: Obama had hinted in his news conference earlier in the week he'd be willing to sign a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if that's what it took to get some breathing room. He, of course, much prefer to have a long-term extension, but six weeks is better than one week. And the question then becomes, what happens next?

BLOCK: Well, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said today that the debt limit increase would be in exchange for talks with President Obama. Is the president willing to go along with it?

HORSLEY: This gets into the area of semantics. You know, what's a conversation? What's negotiation? Obama has said on many occasions he's willing to negotiate with Republicans only after they raised the debt ceiling and re-open the government.

BLOCK: Yeah.

HORSLEY: This GOP offered us only the first of those. But, you know, House Republicans are talking with the president this afternoon, maybe not negotiating, but they're talking. And Jay Carney seem to leave the door open, at least a crack today, for further talks even while the government shut down.

He said what - though, that the president would not pay ransom in exchange for re-opening the government or a longer extension of the debt ceiling. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was more definitive after his meeting with the president this afternoon. He was asked about negotiating with Republicans while the government shut down, and he said simply, not going to happen.

BLOCK: One last thing, Scott. Republicans have been under growing pressure from business leaders and others to raise the debt ceiling, at least temporarily. But there are Republicans who have said, you know, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe this wouldn't really be default. And even if it is, maybe that's not such a bad thing. What does the administration say about that?

HORSLEY: The Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was on the Hill this morning trying to put light about those ideas that it's not a terrible thing to breach the debt ceiling. Some have said that, for example, the Treasury could pay some bills and not others, keep the bondholders happening - happy and avoid the default that way. Jack Lew says he doesn't have the legal authority to do that, and he's not even sure the Treasury Department's computers could handle it. So he really wants a clean extension to the debt ceiling.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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