Once considered a leverage point to extract massive concessions from President Barack Obama, the debt ceiling has all but been scratched from House Republicans’ negotiating playbook this year.
Put simply, the GOP has lost its willingness to fight on the issue — negotiation fatigue over a once-reviled hike to the nation’s borrowing limit that may best be summarized by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
“There’s no sense picking a fight we can’t win,” he told his rank and file in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, sources in the room told CQ Roll Call .
That is a sharp contrast from past years, when Republicans considered demanding elements of Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s spending blueprint or a full repeal of the health care law in exchange for a temporary hike to the debt limit.
As recently as August, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told members that instead of fighting for cuts to the Affordable Care Act and risking a government shutdown, they should focus their efforts on the debt ceiling. Members did not heed his warning, the government partially shut down, and with it went the hopes of tacking a wish list of items to the debt limit.
Now, members are worried that asking for too much would further harm their standing among the electorate, especially heading into an election year in which Republicans have a strong chance of taking the Senate.
“I don’t think they want to get into a huge fight over the debt ceiling,” Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, who is running for Senate, said of his leadership. “They seem to think we would come out with the same negative publicity that we came out of with regard to the government shutdown.”
A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Monday that in the event of a default on the debt limit, 54 percent of Americans would blame Republicans and 29 percent would blame Obama. Twelve percent said they would blame both sides equally.
The new attitude is being exhibited even among staunch conservatives, some of whom said Tuesday that Boehner should allow a vote on the debt ceiling without any preconditions.
Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, said Democrats should field the majority of the votes for a clean debt limit hike, while Republicans vote “present” to let it pass. That would avoid what he described as a pointless political exercise from leadership.
“What they want to do is sort of propose something that the Senate can then strip whatever our demands are and then we can go back home and tell the American people that we voted for reform,” he said. “I don’t think the American people want us to continue playing those games.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who led his colleagues in the push to repeal the health care law during the shutdown, said he thinks the party may try to pass a debt limit hike with some demands, but the final product will not end up that way.
“The debt ceiling has never been a place that I thought was a good negotiating point, just because when you look at defaulting on our debt, it’s something that you can’t afford to do,” he said.
Republicans discussed the matter at their annual retreat last week, but despite several suggested add-ons, they emerged without a consensus . So when they met Tuesday in Washington, D.C., for the first time since the retreat, Boehner urged his colleagues to come together and move a bill before the Senate does, in case Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tries to pass a debt limit increase along with his own add-ons.
One demand Republicans have considered pushing is the repeal of an arcane provision of the health care law that helps insurers mitigate risk, which the GOP has pegged as a bailout. It is the most attractive option to Republicans because it keeps attention on the health care law and could force vulnerable Senate Democrats into a hard vote.
“It’s a difficult position for them,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. “They’re going to have to defend the bailout of the insurance companies.”
The White House countered Tuesday, with aides noting that particular provision is not only paid for by the insurance companies themselves, but will reduce the deficit by $8 billion.
The measure is also hard to understand. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., the author of a freestanding House bill to repeal the provision, said it may be difficult for leaders to describe to the public what exactly they are fighting.
Another idea, though less popular, is a measure that could spur the construction of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline.
Democrats, however, have insisted they will not accept either of those measures, and it remains unclear whether House Republicans can pass a debt limit hike without bipartisan support.
And the Democrats remain ready to vote on a clean debt limit increase should Boehner allow it on the House floor.
“His caucus should listen to Boehner. He says there’s no sense picking a fight on this. The fact is there was never a sense picking a fight on this. It’s playing Russian roulette,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who has long advocated for clean debt limit increases. “He knows it’s a dead-end fight, and it’s a dead end politically.”
With the end-of-month deadline approaching, Boehner ally Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said it is possible the House could pass a clean debt limit hike, but noted it could be a hard political vote for some Republicans.
Last year, Republicans’ only condition amounted to requiring that the Senate pass a budget — and they haven't yet coalesced around a similar plan this time around.
“I think what they’re looking for is something Democrats would admit would be hard to resist,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “No one’s come up with the secret sauce.”
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.