WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner has privately told 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.
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. They came even though he has so far refused to allow a vote on a Senate budget measure to end the shutdown that many believe could pass with bipartisan backing. They also reflect Boehner’s view that a default would have widespread and long-term economic consequences while the shutdown, though disruptive, has had more limited impact.
Along with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, 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.
His comments were read by members of both parties as renewing his determination on the default and 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, 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. Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey, one of the moderate Republicans who met privately with Boehner on Wednesday, 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 the condition of anonymity, said 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.
It is conceivable that 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 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 C. Fleming, R-La., one of his conference’s more conservative members, said he doubted that Boehner would be able to pass any bill — with or without Democratic support — that did not extract some significant concessions from 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,” 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 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 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.
“The speaker’s been over and over on that on the debt ceiling, that there’s no intention for default,” he said. “That’s been public, private, everywhere he’s had an opportunity.”
Democrats saw the disclosure of 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 Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate.