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Rhetoric Flares Ahead of Debt Limit Standoff

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Shown here are Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, left, and House Speaker John Boehner.AP

With a week to go until Congress returns from recess, Democrats and Republicans are hardening their positions on the debt ceiling. GOP leaders, with a growing number of lawmakers behind them, suggest they might let the federal government hit that cap unless their demands for spending cuts are met. And the White House is employing more dire rhetoric to explain why that can't happen. 

"It would be terrible folly to play games with this," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. Asked about GOP lawmakers who suggest the economic impact of failing to raise the ceiling would not be as bad as the administration claims, Carney said those skeptics are "dead wrong." 

The heightened warnings from both sides presage yet another drag-out budget fight to the last possible second, or beyond, once Congress returns from its two-week break. The federal government is expected to hit the $14.3 trillion debt limit by mid-May. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner could use a handful of financial tricks to keep things running until July or so, but once those options are exhausted Congress will either have to pass a deal or face what the Obama administration says will be a devastating default on U.S. obligations. 

Geithner on Tuesday called the whole debate "ridiculous." 

"I mean, the idea that the United States would take the risks -- people would start to believe we won't pay our bills -- is a ridiculous proposition, irresponsible, completely unacceptable risk for us to take," he said at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Carney warned Monday that balking at the vote could throw the country back into recession, "send markets around the globe into a tailspin, interest rates dramatically upward." 

But while the White House and top Democrats in Congress are calling for a "clean" debt ceiling vote -- one that is separate from the concurrent negotiations on deficit reduction -- they might not get it. 

House Speaker John Boehner told Politico.com in an interview that if President Obama doesn't address lawmakers' fiscal concerns, "there's a chance" the debt ceiling vote won't even happen. "That's not my goal," Boehner qualified. 

The National Journal also tallied the positions of senators and found that at least 50 indicate they would oppose a debt ceiling increase unless it is tied to deficit-reduction measures. That number has grown as several moderate Democrats have joined Republicans in calling for attached spending cuts. Among them are Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. 

Republicans, meanwhile, have upped their demands while trying to call what they suggest is the White House bluff. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is part of a six-member bipartisan group working toward a deficit-reduction compromise by the time recess ends, claimed it would be worse to attach nothing to the debt vote than hold the ceiling at its current level. 

"The idea that we might say that this is catastrophic is wrong. What is catastrophic is continuing to spend money that we don't have on things we don't absolutely need," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. 

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has threatened to filibuster the vote unless he wins a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Manchin also reportedly has gotten behind the push for the budget amendment. 

Boehner, though, told Politico.com that while such an amendment would be a positive step, "I'd rather pass real spending reductions." 

Carney said top-level talks on deficit reduction will resume May 5 when the vice president hosts a meeting with bipartisan lawmakers. 

"We understand the need to reduce the deficit. The president's very committed to that," he said.