White House signals possible opening on debt ceiling

White House signals possible opening on debt ceiling

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WASHINGTON -

(CNN) -- Is it a glimmer of hope, or more rhetoric as the deadline for possible government default gets closer?

After weeks of near silence without any hint of a potential compromise between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over raising the nation's debt ceiling, the White House may be offering some conciliatory language that could lead to a deal to prevent a potential default on October 17.

As recently as Friday, White House officials declined to specify any demand for the length of any deal to increase the nation's debt ceiling.

On Monday, a White House official said it was up to Congress to decide how long the debt ceiling increase should last.

"It is up to Congress to pass a debt limit increase, and up to them for how long and when they want to deal with this again," a White House official told CNN. "We have been super clear we think longer is better because it lends more certainty."

However, President Barack Obama reiterated that he will not negotiate with Congress while the country is under threat of a possible debt default.

A separate White House official said, "Only Congress can raise the debt ceiling."

With parts of the government shut down for a week and counting, the focus of ending a deepening political stalemate is shifting to the upcoming deadline for a possible U.S. default if Congress fails to increase how much money the federal government can borrow.

Economists warn of dire fiscal impacts from failing to raise what is called the debt ceiling, such as a reduced U.S. credit rating that would spike borrowing costs. The economic blow and questions about America's fiscal fidelity could bring a global slowdown, Obama has warned.

House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday there will be no debt limit increase and no end to the partial government shutdown that began October 1, unless Obama and Senate Democrats negotiate a broader agreement with House Republicans.

"It is time to deal with America's problems," he told ABC in demanding what he repeatedly called a "conversation" with the White House and Democrats. "How can you raise the debt limit and do nothing about the underlying problem?"

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York rejected Boehner's demand on Monday, telling CNN that it was wrong to make a possible government default part of political negotiations.

"No one should risk it and no one should say, 'I want my political agenda attached to it, otherwise, I will let it happen,'" Schumer said.

At issue is how to reach an agreement to fund the government in the newly started fiscal year and raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit.

Conservative Republicans intent on shrinking the government while trying to weaken Obamacare demand that any agreement on funding for the newly started fiscal year and raising the debt limit include their priorities.

Boehner insisted that a deal to raise the debt ceiling must include deficit reduction steps that would lower costs of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

However, he appeared to move away from the demand of the tea party conservative wing of his GOP caucus to dismantle or defund Obama's signature health care reforms passed by Democrats in 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court last year.

"My goal here is to have a serious conversation about those things that are driving the deficit and driving the debt up," Boehner said, noting that the retirement of the "baby boomer" generation will strain Social Security and Medicare beyond the breaking point if no remedial steps get taken.

Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress insist that such congressional responsibilities -- to keep the government running and able to pay its debts -- must be free of partisan political pressure to avoid the kind of collateral damage happening in the current stalemate.

They want what are known as "clean" measures to fund the government for a short period and increase the debt limit, with no accompanying provisions involving contentious deficit reduction measures or GOP efforts to weaken Obamacare.

Once such measures are passed, they say, negotiations can take place on a full budget for fiscal year 2014 that began on October 1 and other issues such as reducing spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Obama said on Monday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the short-term spending plan to reopen the government already approved by the Senate would pass the House if Boehner allowed a vote on it.

Hagel: Most civilian Defense workers can return this week

Last week, a House Republican said on condition of not being identified that Boehner told GOP colleagues in private meetings he would not allow a government default to occur.

Boehner sounded more combative on Sunday, saying Obama and Senate Democrats were wrong in saying a "clean" short-term spending plan to reopen the government would pass in the House with support from some Republicans and most Democrats.

"There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR," Boehner said.

Boehner told ABC News that Obama and some objective observers are wrong about the number of House Republicans who would vote for a so-called "clean" continuing resolution to re-open the federal government without conditions.

"There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR," the speaker said.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on CNN's "State of the Union" that the government risks more than its credit rating if the debt ceiling is not increased by October 17. He dismissed suggestions that the government could avoid default by making only interest payments, saying Social Security payments and veteran's benefits could be endangered.

"It's very dangerous, it's reckless," Lew said.

If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, borrowing money to meet the nation's obligations won't be possible, CNNMoney's Jeanne Sahadi reported Monday.

Instead, Sahadi reported, lawmakers would have four options to choose from that would have to be implemented right away -- cut government spending for the military and other discretionary programs by up to 33% every month; cut mandatory spending such as entitlement programs by 16% every month, and raising taxes by up to 12% every month.

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