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Is Boehner's Debt Limit Threat All Hot Air?

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Speaking in Washington Tuesday at the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit, Geithner acknowledged that he can delay running up against the debt limit, just as he did in the debt limit showdown last summer, when he bought the administration several additional weeks of wiggle room to continue budget negotiations. "On the current estimates -- and these are going to change -- you know, we're likely to hit the debt limit sometime before the end of the year," Geithner said in remarks delivered before Boehner's. "But Congress has given the executive branch a set of tools that buy them some time. And those tools will probably take us into the early part of 2013, thus separating somewhat the timing of the expiry of the tax cuts and the sequester with the ultimate need for Congress to act on the debt limit." Emphasis added.

That doesn't mean the debt limit fight Boehner is threatening is completely out of the realm of possibility. A lot of variables are in play that could yet move the date when the federal government reaches the debt limit. If the estimates change -- if federal receipts slow for any reason -- then the crisis moment could arrive earlier. And even if the Treasury Department can delay that moment until February, the next Congress could try to pick the fight anyhow. Or, Obama could lose the election and turn everyone's tactical incentives on their heads. But it's still likely that Boehner will never be able to execute the strategy he outlined Tuesday, which first and foremost seeks to buy him leverage during the lame duck session.

"Sometime after the election, the federal government will near the statutory debt limit," Boehner said Tuesday. "Previous Congresses have encountered lesser precipices with lower stakes, and made a beeline for the closest lame-duck escape hatch. Let me put your mind at ease. This Congress will not follow that path, not if I have anything to do with it."