G.O.P. Spoils for a Debt Fight Obama Wants to Sidestep

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WASHINGTON -- President Obama's eyes narrowed late Tuesday as he looked into the cameras and warned Republicans that he had no intention of ever getting pulled into another negotiation over raising the nation's borrowing limit.

"I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed," the president said, pausing to repeat himself. "We can't not pay bills that we've already incurred."

But it is not clear exactly how Mr. Obama can avoid engaging in just such a tug of war.

In the wake of the president's victory on taxes over the New Year's holiday, Republicans in Congress are betting that by refusing to unconditionally raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, they can force Mr. Obama to the bargaining table on spending cuts and issues like reform of Medicare and Social Security.

That would inevitably reprise the bitter clash over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, when the government came close to shutting down before lawmakers and the president agreed to a $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts in exchange for Republican agreement to raise the debt ceiling by about the same amount.

And that is exactly what Republicans want.

The party's caucus in the House will discuss its debt ceiling strategy at its retreat in Williamsburg, Va., in a couple of weeks, according to a top Republican aide, who said it was determined to insist again on spending cuts that equal the increase in the amount the country can borrow.

"The speaker told the president to his face that everything you want in life comes with a price. That doesn't change here," the Republican aide said. "I don't think he has any choice."

That strategy could risk a new round of criticism aimed at Republicans from a public weary of brinkmanship. The 2011 fight ended with a last-minute deal but led to a downgrade in the rating of the nation's debt and a slump in the economic recovery.

But Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said Republicans had made it clear what they wanted in exchange for a willingness to allow borrowing to increase.

"If they want to get the debt limit raised, they are going to have to engage and accept that reality," Mr. Buck said. "The president knows that."

In fact, the White House has been on notice for months that Republicans view the debt ceiling as leverage in the next budget fight. Now, the question is what Mr. Obama and his advisers can do to sidestep that fight.

One possibility is to turn to business executives for support. Many top chief executives view the possibility of a debt ceiling crisis as a significant impediment to the nation's economy just as it is beginning to grow again. Those executives might try to pressure Republican lawmakers not to use the country's credit as a negotiating tool.

Mr. Obama might also take to the road again, using the power of his office to try to convince the public that another fight over the debt ceiling risks another economic crisis. Public polls after the last debt ceiling fight suggested that more people blamed Republicans for the threat of a default.

The president and his aides have signaled that they will try to educate the public by explaining that the increase in the borrowing limit is necessary to cover debts that the government has already incurred. In his statement on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama warned about what would happen if the country did not meet its obligations.

"If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic -- far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff," Mr. Obama said.

In the coming days and weeks, Mr. Obama is likely to try to focus negotiations on the other looming issue: how to avoid deep across-the-board cuts to the nation's military and domestic programs. The deal passed on Tuesday postpones those cuts for two months, but Mr. Obama and lawmakers in both parties are eager to avoid them.

Instead, the president wants a debate over spending cuts and tax changes that would remove loopholes and deductions for wealthy Americans.

That fight is coming. The question is whether the president can avoid conducting it in the middle of a nasty, drawn-out debate over the debt limit.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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