When Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told the Senate Finance Committee last week that the Obama administration would never bargain over raising the nation’s debt limit, it was a declaration the lawmakers had heard before.
Lew, the administration’s point man for pressing Congress to increase the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, has been making the same case privately on Capitol Hill for months, lawmakers say, as he has publicly in speeches and on Sunday talk shows. His determination to stay on message has frustrated Republicans hungry for a deal.
He’s “an implacable negotiator” who is “ideologically committed to protecting every big-government gain,” Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said in an interview. Administration officials “can all go and play a round of golf, and they know he’s not going to agree to anything.”
Lew, 58, has led President Barack Obama’s drive to separate the debt ceiling from other issues that are subject to political deal-making, a position that may change as congressional Democrats and Republicans negotiate how to end the impasse and increase the borrowing limit.
The administration is concerned that protracted negotiations on raising the debt limit to pay bills already approved by Congress will undermine the economy and spur investor doubts about U.S. creditworthiness.
“The full faith and credit of the United States is not a bargaining chip,” Lew told the Senate finance panel at the Oct. 10 hearing in which his testimony varied little from the arguments he’s made over the past two months.
Lew, who said the administration is willing to negotiate on “the future direction of fiscal policy,” reiterated that so- called extraordinary measures––the accounting moves he’s been using since May to stay below the debt limit––will expire by Oct. 17. That would leave the Treasury with about $30 billion on hand. Expenditures can be as high as $60 billion some days.
Senate leaders yesterday struggled to find a deal to avert a default and end a partial government shutdown that began on Oct. 1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he was having conversations with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and was confident that Republicans will agree to open the government and raise the debt ceiling. There was little tangible evidence of a breakthrough. Senators plan to reconvene at 2 p.m. today, and the House at noon, with no votes until 6:30 p.m.