Inside Obama's Game Plan For The Debt Limit

WASHINGTON -- Three senior Obama administration officials have made it abundantly clear that the president has no interest in budging from his position on the government shutdown or the looming debt ceiling fight.

The officials met with a handful of columnists and reporters on Thursday morning on condition that they not be named or quoted. They said President Barack Obama feels as strongly about this issue as he has about anything else during his time in office, including passing health care reform.

The meeting came the day after congressional leaders and the president met in the White House in hopes of finding a path forward on the dual budget fights. That meeting ended without an agreement. And the fact that both sides continued a media blitz the morning after suggests that a resolution remains far off.

What's driving the president, his aides stressed, is a belief that he needs to reorient the balance of powers within the federal government. The three officials repeatedly argued that the losing party in a national election couldn't be allowed to essentially nullify the results of that election through budget sabotage.

And so lines have to be drawn -- not just to affect the policy outcomes of the next few weeks, but to set a precedent for future negotiations.

All of which raises the question: How does the current standoff end? If House Republicans won't pass a deal to end the shutdown or raise the debt limit without concessions, and the president refuses to give in, is default inevitable? Will the government ever reopen?

The administration is betting that at some point, the GOP will understand that its position is futile. And while that's a fairly big bet, the aides believe that all other options are flawed.

Talks with Republicans can take place outside of the debt limit and government shutdown fights, the officials said, but to negotiate in the context of those fights would be to institutionalize political hostage taking. It would also be difficult, since Republicans' demands are changing on a daily basis. As one official put it: the president can't help House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) out of his current quandary because he doesn't know what approach Boehner wants to take.

The Obama administration could work with the Senate to try and put pressure on the House. If the Senate passed a bill to raise the debt limit, it would ramp up pressure on Boehner to follow suit in the lower chamber. But that tactic has been tried with other bills -- notably immigration reform -- and it failed to move the House.

The White House could try to directly engage the conservative wing of the House that convinced Boehner to make sharp demands as part of a government funding deal. But administration officials don't see that path as viable, in part because those members have built their political reputations on opposing the president.

The president could look for a way around the debt limit fight, such as invoking the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the debt limit. But the officials ruled this out, as they have many times before, saying that it would produce similar results to a default, since it would involve asking the market to buy bonds that were legally questionable.

The final option would be for the president to end up acquiescing to some Republican demands.

Much of the hourlong discussion with the administration officials was centered on this possible outcome. Would the White House really prefer allowing the debt limit to be breached over paying some political ransom?

The answer was close to definitive. If the president relented this time around, the opposition's demands would only increase -- and there would be no guarantee that future standoffs over the debt ceiling would be avoided.

But that logic does open the window to one possible deal on the debt ceiling. The president could theoretically agree to some Republican demands in exchange for language that abolished the debt ceiling as an issue altogether. In that scenario, the GOP would be able to claim a policy win and Obama would be able to move on, while ensuring that neither he nor future presidents would ever find themselves in the same bind.

The Huffington Post asked one of the senior officials if this idea had been explored. It hadn't.



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