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John Boehner fires opening shot in potential debt-ceiling showdown

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) In this May 10 file photo, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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To avoid a "fiscal cliff" at year's end, House Speaker John Boehner is going to rely on an old road map.

If President Obama and congressional Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling, Mr. Boehner will say in a speech later on Tuesday, they're going to have to hew to what might be called the Boehner principle: Every dollar of new debt must be paid for by at least a dollar of reduced government spending.

“This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance," Boehner will say, according to excerpts of his remarks at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington.

That's the position to which Boehner and House Republicans eventually held Democrats to raise the debt ceiling last August.

Of course, that trip to the fiscal precipice sent Congress's approval rating plummeting into the single digits, crushed consumer economic confidence, and helped spur an unprecedented downgrade in America's credit rating.

Democrats have called for an approach that uses both increased taxes and lower government spending to cut the government's debt.

Boehner's principle "is a simplistic characterization of the issue that confronts us," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, the House minority whip, in a talk with reporters Tuesday. "The Democrats are clearly going to look at and press for a balanced response. The debt limit should not be a political issue. Mr. Boehner knows it shouldn't be political."

Congress is putting off nearly every substantive policy issue until after the November elections. In addition to the debt ceiling, the heavy issues awaiting Congress between Election Day and the end of year include the Bush tax cuts, unemployment benefits, the budget-slashing "sequester," and Medicare payment rates for doctors.

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On taxes, however, the House will move to lay the groundwork for a deal well before the lame-duck session, Boehner says. The House will vote on taxes before the election to "give Congress time to work on broad-based tax reform that lowers rates for individuals and businesses while closing deductions, credits, and special carveouts," according to excerpts of Boehner's speech.

The House legislation would also enable an "expedited process" for tax reform in 2013. This could mean, Boehner says, that "if we do this right, this will be the last time we ever have to confront the uncertainty of expiring tax rates." He continues in the prepared remarks, "We’ll have replaced the broken status quo with a tax code that maintains progressivity, taxes income once, and creates a fairer, simpler code."

But Boehner doesn't rule out nudging the government along with incremental debt-ceiling deals.

"If [adhering to the Boehner principle] means we have to do a series of stopgap measures, so be it – but that’s not the ideal," Boehner will say Tuesday. "Let’s start solving the problem. We can make the bold cuts and reforms necessary to meet this principle, and we must."

The Boehner principle does not, on its face, rule out tax hikes or other increased revenues to help address the fiscal issues. A mix of tax increases and spending cuts have been offered by a variety of fiscal-reform commissions, including the widely hailed Simpson-Bowles group.

But a Boehner aide says in an e-mail, "Tax hikes are not – and never have been – on the table."

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