If you thought last month's battle over a budget deal was scary, just wait for what could be coming this summer as the nation creeps closer to reaching its self-imposed limit on government-issued debt.
In a speech on Wall Street this week, House Speaker John Boehner said that while failing to raise the nation's debt limit would be unacceptable, he also doesn't believe there is any hard deadline to do so, and that he will require trillions of dollars in spending cuts as part of the bargain. Tax increases are off the table — he said those would kill jobs — but fundamental changes to Medicare and Medicaid aren't. Since then, he's been vague about what exactly he's demanding, and he even backpedaled a bit on the issue of taxes and the magnitude of the spending reductions he'll require.
If he seems pulled in both directions on this issue, there's a good reason for that. He is experienced enough to know that if he was playing with fire — economically and politically — during the budget debates last month, this time he's juggling sticks of dynamite. The United States has never defaulted on its debt, and the resulting chaos and loss of confidence in U.S. Treasury securities could not just imperil the economic recovery but plunge us back into a financial crisis like the one we faced in 2008, or worse.
But he's faced with a large, tea party-influenced freshman class of lawmakers who refuse to accept it.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that a growing number of House Republicans don't believe the deadline for raising the debt — Aug. 2, and only that late thanks to some fiscal maneuvering by the Treasury Department — is serious, and some wonder if the nation can't muddle by somehow without raising the limit at all. The Journal said House leaders have been holding "listening sessions" for skeptical lawmakers but that they seem not to be having the desired effect.
The weeks ahead are going to present a true test of Mr. Boehner's abilities as a statesman. His top deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, is in closed-door negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, in which the vice president insists they are making progress. But it appears increasingly clear that a large segment of House Republicans isn't interested in compromise. That puts Mr. Boehner in a bind: Does he insist on something that pleases the arch-conservatives in his caucus, even if it results in a default, or does he accept a deal that relies on votes from both sides of the political aisle, even if that weakens his hold on leadership? As the deadline looms near, Mr. Boehner needs to consider what is more important, loyalty to those who elected him speaker or to the country he serves.