WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner has privately told fellow Republican lawmakers anxious about fallout from the government shutdown that he would not allow a potentially more crippling federal default, as the atmosphere on Capitol Hill turned increasingly tense Thursday.
Mr. Boehner's comments, recounted by multiple lawmakers, that he would use a combination of Republican and Democratic votes to increase the federal debt limit if necessary, appeared aimed at reassuring his colleagues -- and nervous financial markets -- that he did not intend to let the economic crisis spiral further out of control.
Those remarks came even though he has refused so far to allow a vote on a Senate spending measure to end the shutdown that many believe could pass with bipartisan backing. They also reflect Mr. Boehner's view that a default would have widespread and long-term economic consequences, while the shutdown -- though disruptive -- has had more limited impact.
With the mood in Congress already unsettled by the sparring over the fiscal standoff, the Capitol was shaken anew Thursday, when a high-speed chase beginning near the White House ended near the Senate office complex with Capitol Police fatally shooting the driver. The sound of gunfire outside the Capitol forced at least five senators in the vicinity to take cover and led to a temporary lockdown of members of Congress and their staffs. The House and Senate adjourned for the day shortly after the incident, as the shutdown extended into a third day.
Along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Mr. Boehner has long dismissed the idea that Congress would not act to prevent a damaging default, and President Barack Obama on Thursday called a default "the height of irresponsibility." But the failure of the House and Senate to reach a deal ahead of the shutdown has raised questions of whether Republicans could be persuaded to join in raising the debt limit before the Treasury Department runs out of money in mid-October.
The speaker's comments were read by members of both parties as renewing his determination on the default. They came as the Treasury warned that an impasse over raising the debt limit might prove catastrophic and potentially result "in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008, or worse."
Lawmakers said that in recent days, Mr. Boehner, who is under attack from Democrats over his handling of the shutdown, has made clear that he is willing to use a combination of Republican and Democratic votes on the debt limit if need be. New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, one of the moderate Republicans who met privately Wednesday with Mr. Boehner, would not provide details of the meeting, but said, "The speaker of the House does not want to default on the debt on the United States, and I believe he believes in Congress as an institution, and I certainly believe he is working for the best interests of the American people."
One lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Boehner suggested that he would be willing to violate the Hastert Rule to pass a debt-limit increase. The informal rule refers to a policy of not bringing to the floor any measure that does not have a majority of Republican votes.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel pushed back on the idea that the speaker would try to pass a debt-limit increase mainly with Democratic votes. "The speaker always, always prefers to pass legislation with a strong Republican majority," Mr. Steel said. But he acknowledged that Mr. Boehner, who has long and deep ties to the business community, understood the need to head off a default.
"The speaker has always been clear that a default would be disastrous for our economy," Mr. Steel said. "He's also been clear that a 'clean' debt hike cannot pass the House. That's why the president and Senate Democrats should drop their 'no negotiations' stance and work with us on a plan to raise the debt limit in a responsible way, with spending cuts and reforms to get our economy moving again and create jobs."
It is conceivable that Mr. Boehner could pass a debt-limit increase with a slim majority of Republican votes, with Democrats making up the difference, as he has in the past on budget measures. But moving in that direction poses risks of a threat to Mr. Boehner's leadership position from a watchful conservative bloc, which has warned that his post could be on the line if he goes against the legislative position of large numbers of the rank and file.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., one of his conference's more conservative members, said he doubted that Mr. Boehner would be able to pass any bill -- with or without Democratic support -- that did not extract some significant concessions from Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats.
"I just don't think there'd be hardly any Republicans in support of raising the debt ceiling without cuts to spending, changes to Obamacare and perhaps other issues," Mr. Fleming said. He added that he thought House Republicans would demand at least some sort of delay to the president's signature health care law, and require that every dollar increase in the debt ceiling be matched by a dollar increase in spending cuts.
At the same time, growing numbers of House Republicans have expressed frustration at those insisting on changes to the health law when Mr. Obama has made clear that he will not accept them. Their unhappiness, the furor caused by the shutdown and the desire to avoid default could help protect Mr. Boehner.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said he did not think House Republicans had the "energy" to deal with a debt default.
Democrats saw the disclosure of Mr. Boehner's private comments as a possible sign of progress. "Even coming close to the edge of default is very dangerous, and putting this issue to rest significantly ahead of the default date would allow everyone in the country to breathe a huge sigh of relief," said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Senate's No. 3 Democrat.
A Treasury Department report released Thursday said the debt-limit impasse could cause credit markets to freeze, the dollar to plummet and interest rates to rise precipitously.
After the report's release, Mr. Obama reiterated administration warnings about the potential economic consequences of not increasing the debt limit. "As reckless as a government shutdown is, as many people as are being hurt by a government shutdown, an economic shutdown that results from default would be dramatically worse," Mr. Obama said Thursday, speaking to construction workers at M. Luis Construction in Rockville, Md., a suburb north of Washington.
W. James McNerney Jr., chief executive of Boeing, and also chairman of the Business Roundtable, a corporate association, and of the White House export council, said in an interview Thursday that for corporate America, the standoff over the government shutdown "drives an even deeper concern about the debt limit."nation
First Published October 4, 2013 4:00 AM