Is Boehner’s Debt Limit Threat All Hot Air?

May 15, 2012 12:00 p.m.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) wants to add a plot twist to the post-election lame-duck session of Congress that will be deliberating how to avoid automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in January 2013. The twist? He wants to use the debt limit as leverage to make sure tax increases aren’t part of the equation. His message today to the White House: If you want my cooperation on raising the debt limit, don’t even think about raising taxes.

But for Boehner’s threat to be feasible, the government would have to run out of borrowing authority in November or December. That seems unlikely.

Treasury officials note — and Secretary Timothy Geithner made clear Tuesday — that the administration expects to be able to manage its accounts in such a way that the true deadline for raising the debt limit won’t actually come until early next year — after the fiscal cliff on January 1, and possibly after the new Congress is sworn in. Which means it’s unclear if Boehner’s threat has any teeth to it.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.”

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