WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner on Sunday defiantly rejected calls to reopen the government and raise the federal debt limit, warning that the nation is headed for a first-ever default unless President Barack Obama starts negotiating with Republicans.
"That's the path we're on," Boehner, R-Ohio, said on ABC's This Week. Of Obama, he added: "He knows what my phone number is. All he has to do is call."
Sitting for his first television interview since congressional gridlock shut down most federal agencies nearly a week ago, Boehner sought to dispel the perception that he has been cornered by right-wing rebels and is desperately looking for a way out. In recent days, rank-and-file Republicans have said Boehner has told them he will not let the nation default on its obligations, even if that means raising the nation's borrowing limit primarily with Democratic votes.
On Sunday, Boehner said he has no intention of collapsing in unconditional surrender. "We are not going to pass a 'clean' debt-limit increase" — one without additional concessions from Democrats — he said.
"I told the president, there's no way we're going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit," Boehner said. "And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us."
As Boehner hardened his stance, the White House did the same, dispatching Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to appear on four of the five major Sunday talk shows. Repeatedly, Lew said Obama is willing to enter negotiations to address the nation's long-term budget problems but not until Republicans drop their campaign against Obama's health-care initiative, end the government shutdown and lift the $16.7 trillion debt limit.
"We just spent the last several months with Congress creating this ridiculous choice where either you repeal the Affordable Care Act or you shut down the government or default on the United States. That is not the way we should do business," Lew said on Fox News Sunday.
Republicans "need to open the government. They need to fund our ability to pay our bills," Lew said. "And then we're open to negotiation."
The standoff leaves a shuttered Washington hurtling toward a potentially devastating deadline on Oct. 17, when Lew has said he will exhaust available measures to conserve cash and begin relying entirely on incoming revenue.
Lew ducked questions Sunday about whether that means the nation would immediately default. He said that he cannot predict when he will run short of cash to make required payments and warned that lawmakers are "playing with fire" if they do not act fast to grant him additional authority to borrow.
Senior GOP policy aides are scrambling to come up with options to suspend the debt limit that fall short of outright capitulation. Among the options: A short-term suspension, perhaps no longer than six weeks, designed to force Obama to the bargaining table. But some Republicans argue that even a short-term suspension should come with strings attached.
A larger problem for Republicans appears to be figuring out what they want from the administration. Senior GOP aides acknowledge that their debt-limit bill, with its wish list of far-flung conservative initiatives, is dead. And while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his allies on the right continue to call undermining Obamacare their top priority, Boehner made no such demands Sunday.
In the ABC interview, Boehner tacitly acknowledged making a deal with Senate Democrats to avoid using the threat of a shutdown to attack Obamacare in exchange for an agreement to maintain the deep cuts known as the sequester through the fall. He conceded that his rank and file forced him onto the path to shutdown by insisting on waging the fight over Obamacare.
"Working with my members, they decided, 'Well, let's do it now,' " he said.
Since the shutdown took effect, Boehner and his top lieutenants, along with senior Republicans in the Senate, have been trying to snuff out that fight and shift the debate toward more achievable goals, such as overhauling the tax code and trimming the soaring cost of Medicare and Social Security.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., have been leading efforts to craft a "down payment" on reducing the debt that, in addition to tax reform, could include roughly $600 billion in cuts to entitlement programs, such as using a less generous measure of inflation to trim Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.
But Boehner flatly ruled out new taxes, which Democrats have proposed for wealthy individuals and some corporations.