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Battle Lines Harden in the Game of Debt Limit Chicken

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Boehner is sticking to his 2011 rule that every dollar in debt ceiling increase be matched by a dollar of “spending cuts and reforms.”

Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated Monday that the White House was more than happy to discuss a long-term solution to the nation’s debt and deficit issues — including averting the automatic $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts looming in March and more tax hikes on the wealthy.

In the meantime, Carney warned that the White House simply would not engage in negotiations with the GOP on the debt ceiling.

“Congress racks up the bills. ... The president will not negotiate with Congress over Congress’ responsibility to pay its bills,” Carney said.

So far, the administration hasn’t offered up a fallback plan if Congress refuses to act. Carney last year disavowed using the 14th Amendment’s provision against questioning the federal debt as a way to declare the debt ceiling invalid. Nor has the administration commented yet on a scenario popular among bloggers and some liberals such as columnist Paul Krugman and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. — using the Treasury secretary’s authority to mint platinum coins in any denomination as an end run around Congress. Mint a few $1 trillion coins to pay the bills, and the problem could be kicked to the next administration.

As the nation inches closer to a default — possibly by the end of February — expect the White House to ratchet up the pressure by pointing to all of the bills that would go unpaid, even if debt interest payments are covered. The government would need to cut spending by about $100 billion a month — enough to cause an instant recession were it to last any length of time — while potentially blowing holes in the budget of every agency, contractor, state government and recipient of federal benefits such as Social Security.

The GOP’s Threatening-to-Shoot-the-Hostage Strategy

For as much as the White House says Democrats won’t negotiate around the debt limit, congressional Republicans believe Obama will in the end have to come to the table, which, in their minds, means he’ll have to agree to more spending cuts.

Boehner and Senate Republicans have been clear about using the debt limit to exact more spending cuts from the White House. And perhaps the key player in this latest debt ceiling hostage crisis will be Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been central to every budget deal for the past two years.

“If the president won’t lead us here in the direction of reducing this massive spending addiction that we have, then we have to use whatever leverage we have,” McConnell told CBS News on Sunday.

Multiple GOP aides conceded that these next few weeks will be critical for the party in trying to gain an upper hand for the battle in February or March. With income tax rate hikes permanently set on the wealthy, Republicans view Obama’s renewed push for revenue as moot, and they want to turn to entitlement cuts.

“He doesn’t have a choice — he can declare whatever he wants to declare, but he needs to pass one,” one top Senate Republican aide said of a debt ceiling bill. “If [the White House] had shown any interest in dealing with spending and debt, we would not have to use the debt ceiling or anything else as leverage.”

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