Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, at a recent Washington conference,… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner says Republican leaders have assured the president that they know Congress needs to raise the debt limit and that "you can't play around" with the possibility of defaulting on the country's obligations.
He said GOP leaders recognized that they must vote to avert default even without a deal on cutting the budget by the time the nation hits the $14.3-trillion debt limit around the middle of May.
"I heard them say that to the president," Geithner said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But Republican lawmakers indicated they weren't ready to give up the debt-ceiling issue as leverage to get President Obama and other Democrats to cut spending.
"Nobody's saying we want to see default," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We just want some cuts and controls going forward."
Raising the debt ceiling empowers the Treasury to borrow more money.
The back and forth featured dueling concerns for both sides in the contentious budget talks. Each needs to preserve its negotiating position, but neither wants to see worry about the nation's creditworthiness disrupt the markets.
Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) are miles apart on how to cut the budget without harming the economic recovery. Obama has made it clear he realizes the GOP won't agree to raise the debt ceiling without more cuts.
But Geithner said Sunday that those talks would proceed on "parallel tracks" and that, ultimately, the U.S. is not at risk of default.
"If by the time we need to raise the debt limit we haven't worked all that out, Congress still has to raise the debt limit," Geithner said, adding that the Republican leadership "recognizes that."
Anyone spreading the word on Capitol Hill that they can afford to go "to the brink" on the debt ceiling is playing a dangerous game, Geithner said.
Ryan refused to declare spending cuts independent from the debt ceiling, however, and said he didn't think of mid-May as the pressure point.
"I don't think May 16 is a hard deadline," Ryan said. "There are things Treasury can do to get more time."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was even more specific.
He told "Fox News Sunday" that he would vote against raising the debt limit unless there was "absolute certainty" Congress and the president had made the changes necessary to "put the country back on track."