Obama, Boehner clash at White House meeting over raising debt ceiling

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) clashed during a White House meeting on Wednesday, with the Speaker telling the president that he was “not going to allow a debt-ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt,” Boehner’s office said.

The president convened the meeting of the bipartisan congressional leadership to discuss his “to-do list” for Congress, but an aide to the Speaker said the bulk of the meeting was spent on other issues, including a pile-up of expiring tax provisions and the next increase in the federal debt limit.

Boehner asked Obama if he was proposing that Congress increase the debt limit without corresponding spending cuts, according to a readout of the meeting from the Speaker’s office. The president replied, “Yes.” At that point, Boehner told Obama, “As long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt-ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt.”

Shortly after the meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the president warned the leadership that he would not allow a repeat of last August’s debt-ceiling “debacle,” which led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating.

“You have to ask the Speaker of the House whether or not he intends or he believes that it is the right thing to do for the American people or the American economy to play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” Carney said at his daily press briefing.

The meeting came one day after Boehner delivered a speech to a fiscal summit in Washington in which he said he would once again demand spending cuts and reforms that exceed any increase in the nation’s borrowing limit that Congress approves. Boehner also called out Obama in that address for showing a lack of “courage” in last summer’s debt talks. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also attended the meeting.

The White House lunch, which was described by officials on all sides as “cordial,” resembled the early moves in a chess match and involved a web of major items that will likely await congressional action in a lame-duck session in December. The outcome could rest on whom voters elect in the November elections, but leaders in both parties have begun jockeying for leverage already.

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In making his demand for more spending cuts, Boehner staked out a clear position that House Republicans can run on this fall, and delivered a warning to Democrats who believe they have more leverage in the debate over the Bush tax rates and the looming sequester cuts to the military, which Republicans in particular abhor.

But Reid had his own message for the Speaker. The Senate leader, according to a Democratic aide, “conveyed his view that any discussion of the debt ceiling is premature until after the sequester takes effect or is replaced with a balanced agreement, and after Congress deals with the expiring Bush tax cuts.”

Boehner’s office has described the Speaker’s position as simply an effort to begin negotiations early, well before the “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year. But there is virtually no hope of reaching an agreement in the middle of the heated campaign, and Reid signaled that he feels little urgency to act in advance.

McConnell, who offered only tepid support for Boehner’s approach on Tuesday, notably did not mention the debt ceiling in the comments that were provided by his office after the meeting. Instead, he referred only to his push for an agreement on a student loan bill that can pass the Senate.

If nothing else, there was bipartisan agreement on the lunch menu, which featured hoagies from a D.C. sandwich shop that Obama bought for the leadership.

“My sense was the tone was congenial, the discussion was productive, the sandwiches were delicious,” Carney said. 

He downplayed that the back-and-forth centered on Boehner’s agenda, saying numerous items were raised in what was a “healthy and positive discussion” between the president and congressional leaders. 

The readout from Boehner’s office suggested a more confrontational meeting. It said the Speaker also pressed the president to approve the complete Keystone oil sands pipeline and to encourage Attorney General Eric Holder to provide information congressional investigators have sought on the “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation.

It concluded with the note that the Speaker “was very pleased with the sandwiches served.”

Pelosi told reporters that the meeting was cordial, despite the differing views. “No ‘Kumbaya,’ but hoagie-like, could we say?” she said. “I don’t know. It was a good meeting. It was productive.”

Still, she joined the other Democrats in warning against Boehner’s position on the debt limit. 

“If we’re going on the path that the Speaker is suggesting, that the debt ceiling has to have more cuts than the lifting of the debt ceiling, we will soon have no government. But that might be the plan,” Pelosi said.

“We cannot ever again let there be any doubt that we honor the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” the former Speaker added.

— Updated at 8:04 p.m.