By Russell Berman - 02/06/14 12:31 PM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) joked Thursday that a majority in Congress wouldn’t agree to honor Mother Teresa if it was attached to a bill raising the debt ceiling.
“You know, Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if Congress wanted to make her a saint, and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 votes for it,” Boehner told reporters in the Capitol.
The Treasury Department has told Congress it must raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit by late February to avoid a first-ever default, and Republican leaders have spent the last week trying in vain to find a proposal that could win enough GOP votes to pass the House without help from Democrats.
“We’re still looking for the pieces to this puzzle,” Boehner said. “But listen, we do not want to default on our debt, and we’re not going to default on our debt.”
Boehner made the Mother Teresa quip when he was asked why he couldn’t find 218 GOP votes to pass a top party priority like the Keystone XL pipeline along with the debt limit.
With that effort having failed, Republicans are searching for a bipartisan plan, and Boehner has encouraged discussion of an idea to tie the debt ceiling increase to a measure reversing cuts to cost-of-living adjustments in the military pension program, which were enacted in the December budget accord.
“We’re going to continue to work at it," Boehner said. "No decisions have been made."
Democrats are calling on the GOP leadership to put a debt-ceiling increase with no conditions on the floor, and the Speaker on Thursday did not explicitly rule that out. In a shift from previous debt-limit battles, some conservatives have advocated allowing a bill with no strings attached to pass with mostly Democratic votes, saying the GOP needs to just get past the issue.
Following Boehner's comments, White House said it would “not pay a ransom” for an extension of the debt ceiling.
“We certainly believe Republican leaders who say that we have to raise the debt ceiling. It's the responsibility of Congress to ensure that bills that have already been incurred are paid in a timely fashion, so that the United States doesn't default,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
“Our position, the president's position, is what it has been for a long time, which is that we are not going to pay ransom in return for Congress fulfilling this basic responsibility.”
--This report was updated at 1:19 p.m.