Boehner's early stand sets up second round of the battle over the debt limit

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) restarted the debate this week about raising the federal debt limit because he wants to start defusing fiscal explosives due to detonate when Congress restarts work after the election, Republicans say.

It is six months before the U.S. hits its debt ceiling, but Boehner is seeking negotiations now for a long-term fiscal plan, say aides, House allies and the speaker himself. Without progress this summer or early fall, lawmakers would return to Washington after the November election with only a few weeks to go before the country tumbles over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls a "fiscal cliff."

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That abyss includes automatic tax hikes because rates introduced by President George W. Bush will expire on December 31, deep cuts to the military and domestic spending and a showdown over another increase in the debt limit.

“He’s just trying to start the dialogue and get something done because it’s going to be such a crush of things to do in the lame duck,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a House Republican close to Boehner. “We need to be prepared to get it done now.”

Boehner delivered a high-profile speech on Tuesday in which he made the same demand he made a year ago — that any increase in the debt limit be accompanied by equal or greater spending cuts and reforms.

Democrats were up in arms, and within 24 hours Boehner and the rest of the congressional leadership were sitting in a White House meeting with President Obama. Democratic leaders quickly accused Boehner of threatening again to hold “hostage” the full faith and credit of the U.S.

The uproar prompted Boehner to joke that his critics were “looking at me like I’m the guy carrying a sword around town and I’m going to bludgeon someone. All I’m suggesting is it’s time for us to talk about this.”

Neither Boehner nor GOP aides made clear exactly what form they wanted negotiations to take. But more meetings at the White House would be a start.

“We want the White House to get engaged on this issue,” a House GOP leadership aide said.

Democrats have shown no inclination to begin talks in earnest on the debt ceiling, less than a year after the last round of brinksmanship nearly led to a first-ever default on the debt. Obama has a considerably more modest “to-do list” for Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Boehner that he doesn’t even want to talk about the debt ceiling until 2013, after lawmakers have dealt with the expiring Bush tax cuts and after the sequester spending cuts have begun to take effect.

In some ways, the maneuvering this week was more about Boehner and the Democrats staking claim to their respective leverage points during the lame duck. Republicans desperately want to extend the full slate of the Bush tax rates, while Obama has threatened to veto any extension of income rates for the wealthy. Although Democrats have criticized the automatic spending cuts resulting from last year’s debt deal, Obama has also threatened to veto changes that do not include new revenues.

Boehner’s trump card is the debt ceiling, and by demanding another round of deep spending cuts, he is hoping to force Democrats to come to the table.

Lawmakers say that discussions about a deficit “grand bargain” are continuing among centrist Democrats and Republicans, but they under no illusions about the likelihood of a deal in the heat of campaign season.

“I think most people would assume that the issues are probably going to be addressed after the election,” Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a member of the conservative Blue Dog coalition, said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it now.”

Boehner and his allies argue that the push for substantive talks over the summer are a necessity, and not merely wishful thinking.

“Anybody who thinks with all the things that are coming due between the election and Jan. 1 of next year that we can do in 45 days what we haven’t done in 10 years is crazy,” Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said. “It only works if we’ve built consensus over the last several months.”

And if Democrats refuse to negotiate or offer their own plan, Republicans say they at least have a talking point and a clear party position heading into the election. “It’s responsible to get out in front of it,” the GOP leadership aide said.